My lasting memory of my last trip to Pittsburgh will be in the aftermath of the Rangers’ Game 5 loss to the Penguins in last spring’s Eastern Conference Semifinals. We were waiting in the cramped visitors’ locker room for Jaromir Jagr to emerge, knowing full well he likely played his last game in a Rangers uniform.
Once the Rangers captain came out after showering and shaving off his questionable postseason facial hair, a mob of media descended around his locker. Jagr was appropriately vague, even non-committal, and as we learned later, it may be because at that point, he still didn’t know what lay before him.
Some nine months later, the Rangers have been reconstructed without Jagr, and the debate rages on about whether they are a better team than they were a year ago. From a record standpoint, it’s no contest, especially after Friday’s overtime win in Chicago pushed the Rangers to 27-15-4. But most observers would say that’s also a reflection of a diluted Eastern Conference, with no team other than the Bruins truly distinguishing itself.
The best example of the Conference’s inconsistency can be found in the Rangers’ opponent today. The Penguins have two of the best players in the game, a maturing but still above-average goaltender, and can still point to their appearance in last year’s Cup finals as a learning experience. But they also woke up this morning on the outside of the playoff picture, and have fallen to the Rangers in all three meetings so far this season.
But all three of those games were at the Garden, while this afternoon the scene shifts back to Mellon Arena, where the team dropped all three games in last spring’s playoffs. If ever there was a chance for the Penguins to snap back to life, it could be today, even if Sidney Crosby is questionable with a knee injury (don’t forget, the team did just fine without the star for a spell last season).
So stay tuned.