Presidents’ Trophy winners have a rocky history in the playoffs, but the New York Rangers are the hottest team in hockey right now. The Pittsburgh Penguins barely snuck into the post-season, but a lineup that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can always play the role of spoiler.
HOW THEY WIN
RANGERS: The Rangers yield practically nothing to the opposition. Boasting one of the most skilled and savvy blueline corps in the NHL, New York is always safe with players such as Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi on the prowl. The fact Keith Yandle hasn’t even been mentioned yet speaks volumes of the talent back there, and even if you get through two of those players, you still have to deal with Henrik Lundqvist, the backbone of the franchise. ‘The King’ always gives New York a chance to win, and last year’s appearance in the Stanley Cup final wasn’t enough to slake his thirst for glory. Needless to say, the penalty kill is also a strong suit. Up front the Rangers have speed and skill to burn, headlined by forwards Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and past Cup champion Martin St-Louis. Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin also have some wicked afterburners.
PENGUINS: The Penguins score well in many metrics historically important to playoff success. They’re top-10 in goals against, power play, penalty kill and 5-on-5 scoring. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain two of the NHL’s elite players, and Crosby in particular heated up down the stretch. Marc-Andre Fleury was tied for the NHL lead in shutouts and was having quite the season in net, while first-year coach Mike Johnston has utilized his fast-paced style with a nod to defensive responsibility. The Pens have been a better possession team with Johnston at the helm despite injuries/illnesses to key players Crosby, Malkin, Olli Maatta and others. And if you believe in good storylines, the last time Pittsburgh won the Cup was in 2009 when Dan Bylsma was a rookie coach (albeit as a mid-season replacement). Pittsburgh has the weapons to do it. Now it’s just a matter of execution.
HOW THEY LOSE
RANGERS: For all their weapons and marquee names, the Rangers are only a middling possession team. It’s a good thing the defense is so stacked, because they’re usually pretty busy. Nash went cold in last year’s run to the final, and the fans at Madison Square Garden got pretty testy with the veteran power forward. How fast will they turn on him this year if he doesn’t put points on the scoresheet? And how will that affect him? And while Lundqvist’s track record is beyond reproach, he is recovering from a scary vascular injury after a puck struck his throat Jan. 31. He missed almost two months of action in the second half. Cam Talbot (and even Mackenzie Skapski) did a bang-up job in Lundqvist’s absence, but New York needs a healthy ‘Hank.’ Having said that, it’s pretty tough to poke holes in Lundqvist or the Blueshirts as a whole coming out of the Eastern Conference.
PENGUINS: Speaking of execution, more than a few Pens fans will volunteer for the firing squad if this team chokes again. Despite having two of the best players on Earth, Pittsburgh hasn’t reached the final since that win in ’09 and has fallen or struggled against teams inferior on paper. In most cases, the Penguins have lost all composure in these series, as a result of Fleury becoming an open toll-booth gate in net or the team getting pulled into havoc-filled melees with the opposition (Philadelphia being the obvious culprit there). Sometimes both occur. Most of Pittsburgh’s shortcomings are mental at this point, as Fleury has been a great goaltender in the regular season and scoring is rarely a problem. Since the Pens are such an easy team to draw talent to, they’ve seen a revolving door of top-six wingers over the years, and a couple need to step up this season.
GOALIE ZONE by Jamie McLennan
RANGERS: Cam Talbot was excellent in Henrik Lundqvist’s absence, but Lundqvist remains the Rangers’ starter. He needed a grace period to get back into game shape and work on his timing, but he’s one of the best. The only thing Lundqvist gets exposed on: he plays a deeper game, so there’s no room for error. He’s got to rely on reflexes and instincts, but he’s as good as anyone reading the rush and reading plays. He can get into trouble when he’s giving out rebounds the way he did last year against the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup final.
PENGUINS: Although Marc-Andre Fleury has been criticized heavily, the Penguins weren’t unhappy with his performance in the playoffs last year. They had injury problems and felt they couldn’t score for him. Fleury’s having another great regular season this year and can be an outstanding player, but the thing with him is it’s all between the ears in the post-season. He has the ability to lock it down, but some say, “He hasn’t shown it in the post-season in six years now. Can he find that level again?” That said, I have more confidence in him than a lot of people do.
RANGERS: Kevin Hayes was quite the find as a college free agent. His power game suits playoff hockey. He’s a 6-foot-5, 225-pound beast who got better as the season progressed, scoring as many goals in February as he did from October through the end of January. He’s a nice late-round fantasy steal if he carries over his hot play.
PENGUINS: Kris Letang has enjoyed a phenomenal comeback season. He should be the first or second defenseman drafted in playoff pools. The best targets are (a) high scorers and (b) guys whose teams have potential for a deep run, and Letang fits both categories. If your pool counts PIM, though, P.K. Subban should go first.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash both received heavy criticism for their play in last year’s playoffs so it’s only fitting they avenge those demons in the first round against each other. Nash responded well during the regular season with one of his best seasons while Crosby had one of his worst. When they’ve gone head to head over the years, the matchup has been very even and this series should be no different. This year, they both had a similarly significant impact on goals scored while they were on the ice with Crosby holding the territorial advantage.
THN PREDICTION: New York in five.
READ THN’S OTHER ROUND 1 PREVIEWS IN OUR STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF FEED.