Penguins vs. Rangers: Preview and Prediction for the 2016 NHL Playoffs Matchup

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistApril 11, 2016

Penguins vs. Rangers: Preview and Prediction for the 2016 NHL Playoffs Matchup

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    When the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs get underway on Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers will face each other for the third straight year.

    This time around, the Penguins climbed the Metropolitan Division standings to finish in second place and earn home-ice advantage in the first round with a 48-26-8 record for 104 points. The Rangers, who captured the top spot in the entire NHL in 2014-15, settled for third place in their division this year with a record of 46-27-9 for 101 points.

    The last two times these teams met in the postseason, the Rangers emerged triumphant—with a 4-1 series win in the first round in 2014-15 and a come-from-behind 4-3 win in the second round in 2013-14. All told, the two teams have met in six previous playoff series, with Pittsburgh holding a 4-2 edge.

    What lies ahead this year? Click through for a complete breakdown of what to expect this time around from one of the playoffs' most familiar and entertaining rivalries.

Regular-Season Recap

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    After a slow start in 2015-16, the Pittsburgh Penguins turned around their season when Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston behind the bench in December. Pittsburgh finished out the year as one of the NHL's hottest teams with an 8-2-0 record in its last 10 games, while captain Sidney Crosby climbed to third place in league scoring with 85 points.

    Defenseman Kris Letang also bounced back after several seasons filled with health issues. His career-high 16-51-67 in 71 games ranked him second in points per game by a defenseman behind only Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators (82).

    The Penguins' biggest move heading into the year was the acquisition of sniper Phil Kessel, who took some time to find his footing but finished strongly, with seven goals and 19 points in his final 21 games. 

    Finishing the season at 48-26-8 for 104 points, the Penguins moved from playoff also-rans into fourth place in the NHL by season's end, six points better than 2014-15 and with a plus-42 goal differential that ranked second behind the Washington Capitals.

    The Penguins have done well to thrive down the stretch despite injuries to key players such as Evgeni Malkin and Olli Maatta, but they may have a big hole in net when the playoffs begin. Starter Marc-Andre Fleury has been sidelined since April 1 with concussion, and his capable young backup, Matt Murray, missed Pittsburgh's final game of the regular season with a head injury, per TSN.

    New York Rangers

    When you're the reigning Presidents' Trophy holder, as the New York Rangers were in 2015-16, there's really nowhere to go but down in the regular season.

    A record of 46-27-9 in 2015-16 dropped the Rangers from 113 points to 101 and from first place to third in the Metropolitan Division, which means no home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs this year.

    The biggest moves of the offseason saw impending free agent Carl Hagelin shipped to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for speedy Emerson Etem, the retirement of Martin St. Louis and the promotion of rookie Oscar Lindberg.

    When the new season began, the Rangers' core players continued to carry the main load for the team. Eric Staal was added at the trade deadline to provide veteran leadership and Stanley Cup-winning experience.

    New York finished the season strong, winning six of its last seven games and surrendering more than two goals just twice during that span. Ending the year ranked seventh offensively (236 goals for), five different Rangers broke the 20-goal mark and 10 finished in double digits, led by a career-high 27 from Derick Brassard.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Game 1
    Wednesday, April 13
    8 p.m. ET
    New York Rangers at Pittsburgh
    USA, Sportsnet, TVA Sports

    Game 2
    Saturday, April 16
    3 p.m. ET
    New York Rangers at Pittsburgh
    NBC, CBC, TVA Sports

    Game 3
    Tuesday, April 19
    7 p.m. ET
    Pittsburgh at New York Rangers
    USA, Sportsnet, TVA Sports

    Game 4
    Thursday, April 21
    Time TBD
    Pittsburgh at New York Rangers
    Sportsnet, TVA Sports

    Game 5*
    Saturday, April 23
    TBD
    New York Rangers at Pittsburgh
    Television TBD

    Game 6*
    Monday, April 25
    TBD 
    Pittsburgh at New York Rangers
    Television TBD

    Game 7*
    Wednesday, April 27
    TBD
    New York Rangers at Pittsburgh
    Television TBD

    *If necessary

Key Storylines

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Who's in Net for Pittsburgh?

    As well as the Penguins have played down the stretch, their season could come to a quick, screeching halt if both their regular goaltenders are unable to start the series on Wednesday.

    Fleury missed the last five games of the regular season after being diagnosed with a concussion but is believed to be close to being able to return to action. Coach Sullivan suggested to Bill West of TribLive that it was "a possibility" that Fleury could have been ready to play the Penguins' final game of the regular season on April 9.

    He left the door open for Fleury's possible return for Game 1 while acknowledging that "the nature of Marc's injury, it's kind of a day-by-day thing."

    As for Murray, there are no further update on his status after he left Pittsburgh's final game in the first period after taking a knee to the head from the Philadelphia Flyers' Brayden Schenn. During a TV interview from the bench during the game, Sullivan said (h/t Adam Kimelman of NHL.com): "We don't really have an update. For precautionary reasons, it makes sense for us to keep him out."

    Jeff Zatkoff finished Saturday's game—his first action since Feb. 20—giving up two goals on 24 shots in a meaningless 3-1 loss. The 28-year-old was 4-7-1 overall with Pittsburgh this year, with a .917 save percentage and 2.79 save percentage. He has never appeared in an an NHL playoff game.

    On Sunday, the Penguins announced they had called up 20-year-old Tristan Jarry from farm team the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. It's not yet known whether this is an insurance move or Jarry might be pressed into service on Wednesday.

    Who Wins the Special Teams Battle?

    Contrary to past seasons, Pittsburgh is the superior defensive team heading into this year's playoffs. The Penguins finished the regular season ranked sixth in the league with an average of 2.43 goals surrendered per game while the Rangers finished tied for 15th at 2.62.

    The Pens also boast the better penalty kill—fifth overall with an 84.4 percent efficiency rate. The Rangers have struggled shorthanded, finishing the year in 26th place at 78.2 percent.

    There isn't much to choose between the two teams' middle-of-the-pack power plays, but the strong late-season production from Crosby, Kessel, Letang and company should leave the Penguins in good shape to exploit the man-advantage situations that come their way.

    Is the Rivalry Shifting?

    After falling to the Rangers in the playoffs in the last two seasons, the Penguins gained the upper hand in the regular-season series between the two teams in 2015-16. After Henrik Lundqvist shut out the Penguins 3-0 at Consol Energy Center to kick off the season series on Feb. 10, Pittsburgh responded with three wins in March, including two at Madison Square Garden.

    By comparison, the Penguins were 1-2-1 in the regular season against the Rangers in 2014-15 before falling in five games in the first round. Is this a sign the Mike Sullivan-era Penguins match up better against what Alain Vigneault's team brings to the table?

Players to Watch

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Rick Nash, New York Rangers

    Even if you account for the 22 games he missed through injury, Rick Nash's 2015-16 regular season was a major disappointment. The Rangers' highest-paid player, with a cap hit of $7.8 million, per General Fanager, contributed just 15-21-36 in 60 games and chipped in just three goals in 15 games after returning from a knee injury in mid-March.

    Last season, Nash capped off a 42-goal campaign in the regular season with 14 points in 19 playoff games, good for second place on the team. He'll need to deliver similar production if the Rangers hope to advance past the first round this year.

    Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins

    This is where the rubber meets the road. Can Kessel deliver enough scoring punch in the playoffs to justify general manager Jim Rutherford's offseason acquisition?

    Kessel's career playoff stats are pretty good—0.95 points per game compared to 0.77 points per game in the regular season. The problem is his sample size is minuscule. At 28, Kessel is just a couple of months younger than Sidney Crosby, but he has played in just 22 postseason games in his 10-year NHL career, whereas Crosby has appeared in an even 100 (and produced 118 points, or 1.18 points per game).

    Kessel has gotten better as the season has gone on. It'll be fascinating to see whether he can come through with some clutch goals to satisfy the high expectations that accompanied his arrival in Pittsburgh.

    Carl Hagelin, Pittsburgh Penguins

    When the Rangers dealt Hagelin last summer because of salary-cap limitations, they made sure to trade him as far away as possible—to Anaheim, where he wouldn't come back to haunt them.

    General manager Jeff Gorton didn't count on a subsequent deal in January, which put Hagelin right back in the Metropolitan Division as a member of the Penguins.

    The speedy Swede struggled in California, managing just 12 points in 43 games with the Ducks. But the change of scenery has proved fruitful for Hagelin, who has gone 10-17-27 and put up an impressive plus-18 during his 37 games with the Penguins.

    With a little inside information on his old team as well, will Hagelin be the secret weapon that burns the Rangers this year?

Goaltender Breakdown

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    Marc-Andre Fleury / Matt Murray / Jeff Zatkoff / Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

    The Penguins' destiny in this series almost certainly depends on who's healthy enough to tend goal—and whether he can stay that way.

    Fleury has come a long way since that wild first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012, when he gave up 26 goals in six games. Even in the Penguins' first-round loss to the Rangers last season, Fleury's numbers were just fine—11 goals against in five games for a goals-against average of 2.12 and a .927 save percentage.

    If he's well enough to start on Wednesday, he'll give the team in front of him a good dose of confidence.

    The Pens also seem perfectly happy to play in front of promising rookie Murray, who put together a tidy 9-2-1 record in his first NHL season, with a .930 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average.

    To this point, Murray hasn't shown any signs of cracking under pressure. Will he be fit to get a chance to show his stuff in the playoffs, or will the Penguins be forced to throw the Hail Mary and cross their fingers that a cobbled-together tandem of Zatkoff and Jarry can do the job until their main men are 100 percent?

    Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

    In a very good year for goaltending around the league, the 34-year-old Henrik Lundqvist's numbers dipped a bit. He finished the season tied for sixth with 35 wins, with a 2.48 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

    Antti Raanta capably backed Lundqvist up this season, the Finn posting an 11-6-2 record while appearing in 25 games altogether, with a 2.24 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.

    Though King Henrik may no long be the No. 1 lord of the goalie manor in the NHL, underestimate his competitive fire at your peril. The playoffs always bring out the best in Lundqvist, who has been a huge part of the reason for the Rangers' postseason success in recent years.

    At 34, and with the clock ticking on the Rangers' roster composition before the group will need to be blown up, Lundqvist knows the window is closing on his opportunity to win his first Stanley Cup. Expect to see him as ferocious as ever against his old foes from Pittsburgh in Round 1.

Biggest Mismatch: Speed

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    Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

    Rather than hash over Pittsburgh's uncertain goaltending situation yet again, let's look on the bright side for the Pens. The team's resurgence during the second half of the season has come since Sullivan opened up the throttle and let his forwards use their speed and creativity to make plays, often setting opponents back on their heels.

    It's a great way for Crosby to play and has worked brilliantly for the Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Kessel combination. 

    This isn't to say the Rangers don't boast some speedy forwards of their own, led by Mats Zuccarello. The issue is whether they'll be able to defend successfully if Pittsburgh comes at them in waves.

    The Rangers will have a big hole on their blue line if captain Ryan McDonagh isn't ready to play Game 1. He missed the last three games of the regular season after breaking bones in his hand blocking a shot, per Larry Brooks of the New York Post.

    If you remember anything about how McDonagh and the Rangers went out during last year's playoffs, you'll know that even if the captain suits up, it doesn't necessarily mean he'll be able to perform at full capacity.

    You can bet the Penguins know this too and are already looking at the ways they can exploit the Rangers' potential shortcomings on the blue line.

The Penguins Will Win If They Get Decent Goaltending

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Now we're back to goaltending.

    Since Pittsburgh has been virtually unstoppable through these final months of the season, the team's skaters just need to keep doing what they've been doing. The Penguins score lots of goals and don't surrender many. That's a solid combination come playoff time.

    Best-case scenario: Fleury is healthy and ready to go for Game 1. It could be possible to get the necessary netminding from Murray or one of the others, but when you have a chance to use a Cup-winning veteran who's playing well, he should definitely be the first choice.

The Rangers Will Win If They Can Break the Spell

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Here's the thing about confidence: It can vanish just as suddenly as it appears.

    As good as the Penguins' run has been leading into the playoffs, if the Rangers steal a game—or two—during those opening days in Pittsburgh, the balloon could pop and all bets would be off.

    We only need to go back two years to when the Penguins held a 3-1 series lead over the Rangers and looked like they were going to cruise comfortably to the Eastern Conference Final before New York came roaring back with a seven-game win.

    Maybe an inexperienced goaltender will lead the Pens to sink. Maybe their scoring will dry up. Maybe Henrik Lundqvist is about to channel his Vezina-winning self from 2011-12.

    All that coach Alain Vigneault and his group need to do is find one vulnerability in the Penguins' system and then start chipping away.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

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    Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

    If you're a Crosby fan, this could be your year to watch one of the NHL's best players of the last decade add another chapter to already-impressive personal history.

    Crosby is playing his best hockey in years and has the support of a strong group, which seems to be moving into a new era of on-ice harmony. If the Penguins can keep the good vibes going, they could be on their way to a long run this spring.

    For the Rangers, it looks like their formula of relying on the addition of high-priced veteran leaders has stopped paying dividends. With Rick Nash spinning his wheels and trade-deadline acquisition Eric Staal failing to find a way to fit into the team structure, New York looks poised for a long summer after its first opening-round exit in five years.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com.