The Penguins have been transformed in the second half under Mike Sullivan, but can they beat a deep and experienced Rangers team without Evgeni Malkin?
SERIES STARTS: Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET in Pittsburgh.
HOW THEY WIN:
PENGUINS: The Penguins have been transformed since Mike Sullivan took over the bench mid-season from Mike Johnston. The stuffy systems of the latter have been shaken off, and Sullivan has these birds flying, using their speed to burn teams. Captain Sidney Crosby has been light years more productive since the coaching change. Altering the defense toward puck movement has also helped, as the Pens acquired Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz during the campaign to keep that pace pushing crisply.
With other top-notch offensive weapons in Evgeni Malkin, if healthy, and Phil Kessel up front, the Penguins are intimidating when they have the puck – and they have it often, as one of the best possession squads in the East. If a healthy Marc-Andre Fleury is playing great in net, Pittsburgh has all the elements to win – on paper.
RANGERS: The Blueshirts are one of the the best 5-on-5 teams in the NHL, and a lot of that has to do with their depth and uncanny sniping abilities. New York has the best shooting percentage and, although that can be a sign of a team’s short-term luck, the Rangers were also one of the best shooting teams last year, so maybe they just know what they’re doing. Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller have been among the most dangerous of late regardless of what line they play on. With the addition of Eric Staal, what was already an intimidating bunch of forwards (we haven’t even mentioned Chris Kreider or Rick Nash yet) got even bigger.
While coach Alain Vigneault’s defense hasn’t been as elite as in recent years, it’s still very good, and Henrik Lundqvist is the type of showtime goalie who excels in high-pressure playoff situations.
HOW THEY LOSE:
PENGUINS: Whatever it is, we won’t find out until it happens. The Pens have been mystifying since winning the Cup in 2009, bombing out to underdogs, losing their cool to archrivals and giving up buckets of goals at inopportune times. The regular season gave no clues to the culprit in any of those situations. If there is an obvious fly in the Pens’ ointment, it would be the surprisingly moribund power play, especially since the team employs Crosby, Malkin and point man Kris Letang. Sullivan hasn’t been able to fix that. This is also a very top-heavy team, thanks to the big-ticket contracts owned by players such as Kessel, Malkin and Crosby. That means the bottom-six forwards are a bit of a dog’s breakfast – which doesn’t bode well for a long playoff run.
RANGERS: Surprisingly, the Rangers are not a good possession team, ranking in the league’s bottom 10. They will be the only Eastern playoff squad to rank in the bottom third, and that rarely ends well. When the Rangers went to the 2014 final, they were top 10. Perhaps because the Rangers don’t have the puck often, they have also drawn the least amount of penalties in the NHL, limiting power play opportunities.
It will also be interesting to see if fatigue plays a factor this year, as New York has been one of the busiest playoff teams in recent years. The Rangers have played nine series since 2013. Only Chicago (11) has more. What will that mean for blueline veterans Dan Girardi and Dan Boyle?
PENGUINS: An ill-timed upper body injury put EVGENI MALKIN on the shelf down the stretch and, even though the Pens won the first couple of games with him out, it goes without saying the one-time Hart and Conn Smythe winner is an essential part of the attack. In a post-season where the East has few legit contenders, the Pens could make noise, but opponents will zero in on Crosby if Malkin isn’t a factor. With little depth on other lines, that could be a death knell for a team that still has talent but seems to be falling behind the Tampas and Washingtons of the world.
RANGERS: ERIC STAAL was the big deadline acquisition for the Rangers, and he brings more than just his big body and possession game to town. He’s a Stanley Cup winner from his early Carolina days, and he’s historically raised his level of play in the post-season: he averages a point per game in the playoffs vs. .85 in the regular season. And you have to think he would love to get another title, this time with little brother and new teammate Marc Staal. With the third NHL Staal, Jordan, having a ring from his days in Pittsburgh, Marc needs in on the family glory party.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
With the Rangers top pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi likely out to start the series, there’s a gaping hole in the matchup department against arguably the league’s best player. Under Mike Johnston Sidney Crosby didn’t look the part, but he’s come on much stronger – much like the rest of the team – since Mike Sullivan came on board. That rocky start is part of the reason his defensive shot rates aren’t as good as they usually are, but his offence still looks elite as usual. The Rangers won’t have their top D-men, but they do have a very underrated top line center in Derek Stepan ready to shoulder the burden. His relative shot rate percentages were basically equal to Crosby’s this season, with more balance at both ends of the rink. He’s no Sid, but if Stepan can keep Crosby in check, the Rangers might have a fighting chance against the surging Pens.
THN’s pick: PENGUINS.