Here’s a look at how the Rangers and Penguins match up:
The Flyers had an edge on the Rangers in this department, even though the Rangers had more depth. With Pittsburgh, it’s more than an edge. The Penguins have a ton more skill, and depth, and their forwards are nasty and rugged. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are two of the best on the planet (with Martin St. Louis, the last three NHL scoring champs are in this series). Crosby had no goals and six assists in the first round against the Blue Jackets and is due to break out. Malkin had a hat trick in Game 6. It is imperative that Rick Nash get on the scoresheet, and often, in this series, and that the Mats Zuccarello-Derick Brassard-Benoit Pouliot line picks up where it left off in Game 7 against the Flyers. The Rangers can’t have passengers up front, because Pittsburgh has guys such as James Neal and Chris Kunitz and so many others who can put the puck in the net frequently and consistently. Injured Penguins Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale practiced Wednesday. The Rangers’ Chris Kreider (hand surgery) remains out indefinitely.
Fortunately for the Rangers, their second pair of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman was fabulous against Philadelphia, because they will need two pairs to match against Crosby and Malkin, who usually don’t play on the same line. Ryan McDonagh, if his shoulder is indeed still an issue, won’t be helped by the six games in nine nights he will have played by Monday. Dan Girardi’s game was uneven during the previous round. Kris Letang, Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin are better offensively than any Rangers defenseman (Niskanen and Martin combined for 16 points vs. the Jackets), but they are also mistake-prone and could be affected by the Rangers’ speed. Penguins rookie Olli Maatta is a wild card, and Brooks Orpik, who plays on the edge, has some sort of injury.
Henrik Lundqvist was excellent in Game 7 and some of the other games in Round 1, but he didn’t measure up to his lofty standard overall. He will have to steal games in this round, and his regular-season numbers against Pittsburgh (25-19-7, 2.46 goals-against average, .913 save percentage) are below his career averages. Marc-Andre Fleury has one thing — a Stanley Cup — that Lundqvist doesn’t. But unlike Lundqvist, he has cost his team playoff games and series since winning that Cup. If Fleury is locked in — and maybe getting through the first round this year will do that — he’s good enough to win again. If not …
Again, these are not the Flyers, and the Flyers scored six power-play goals (one into an empty net) against the Rangers. The Rangers’ penalty killing won Game 5 and was very good all season, but it broke down at times against Philadelphia. Pittsburgh’s power play scored six times in six games against Columbus. With all that skill, the Pens can make a team pay for going to the penalty box, and the Rangers have a new habit of taking penalties. Meanwhile, the Rangers’ power play, after registering two goals in Game 1, went 0 for 21 to end the series. It has been bad since late January.
Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma has one thing Alain Vigneault doesn’t have — a Stanley Cup ring. But both coaches have had extremely strong teams in recent years and have come up short. Vigneault got to within a game of the Cup three years ago, but he hadn’t been through the first round in three before this year. He’s done a great job with his new team overall. If he gets through this round, it will be a wild success.
Penguins in five
Josh Thomson, 26’s pick:
Penguins in six.
Photo by USA Today.