As the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins kick off their first-round playoff series Tuesday in Manhattan, there’s a sense of passing eras at play.
The Penguins, of course, are in the twilight years of the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Kris Letang era, while the Rangers are at the beginning of the Igor Shesterkin/Adam Fox/Alexis Lafreniere/Kaapo Kaako era. And, as it goes with any battle between a Stanley Cup-champion core and a young group of up-and-comers, it’s on the unproven squad to convince people they’re worthy of believing in.
In particular, Shesterkin is going to be leaned on quite heavily to get the Blueshirts into the second round and beyond, as much of the Rangers’ regular-season successes have come directly because of the Russian’s prowess in net. Indeed, Shesterkin’s status as a frontrunner for the NHL’s Vezina Trophy as the game’s best goalie, as well as for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, has been well-earned by the 26-year-old. He has been worth every penny of his $5.67-million salary, and the Penguins know it will be an uphill battle trying to get pucks past him.
Still, there’s something to be said for a Penguins squad that has above-average depth and playoff experience to rely on. The Pens are expected to be without starting goalie Tristan Jarry and veteran winger Jason Zucker for at least the first game of the series, but they have tremendous depth from their top line through their fourth line – all 12 of their top forwards had at least 21 points in the regular season, while seven of those forwards posted between 41-84 points, despite three of them missing significant time due to injury – and their defensemen have chipped in 174 points. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan knows he can depend on his players to generate offense, although it may be a different story going up against Shesterkin night-in and night-out.
Meanwhile, the Rangers have a solid defense corps – Fox is the cornerstone, but veteran Jacob Trouba and youngsters K’Andre Miller and Ryan Lindgren are capable competitors as well – but it’s their collection of forwards that need to provide Shesterkin with offensive support. Nobody doubts the skills of stars Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, and veterans Ryan Strome and trade deadline acquisition Andrew Copp both are 20-goal-scorers and 50-point producers.
The problem is, the Blueshirts have won just one playoff series since the 2014-15 campaign. They’ve changed coaches multiple time since then – the relaxed Gerard Gallant currently brings a different vibe than the high-strung Alain Vigneault – but playing in one of hockey’s biggest markets always turns up the pressure on Rangers players. If the Penguins pounce on them early in the series, which Rangers player is going to police the dressing room and squeeze out every bit of competitiveness from them?
The Rangers believed they were ushering in a new era on offense with the drafting of Lafrieniere and Kakko, but the two wingers have not proven to be elite-level forces just yet. Granted, Lafrieniere is just 20 and Kakko is 21, but they’re still developing and dealing with the expectations that come with being a very high draft pick. The Penguins are going to test both of them in this series, and the manner in which they respond could be the difference between the Rangers moving on to the second round and going home painfully early for the summer once again.
It’s tempting to see this Pens/Rangers series as a battle of goalies, with the Penguins (and current starter Casey DeSmith) significantly overmatched against Shesterkin’s magic act. But the playoffs aren’t always about the obvious. Upsets over the years have been achieved when less-prominent elements turn the tide for the underdog, and that’s where we may be with the Pens at this stage. It’s strange to suggest any team with Malkin and Crosby are underdogs, but until Pittsburgh proves it can get Shesterkin to wobble and fall over in exhaustion from keeping Penguins stars at bay, that’s what the Pens are.
It’s not going to be a cakewalk for either side, that’s for sure. But the team that can come with a better all-around attack is going to be the one that makes it to the second round.