Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Pittsburgh vs. NY Rangers
By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 51-24-7 (2nd seed, East)
2014 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Columbus 4-2 in conference quarterfinals
(SportsNetwork.com) - Unless it ends with Sidney Crosby and his teammates lifting the Stanley Cup, it's no longer good enough for the Pittsburgh Penguins to simply win a playoff series.
At this point, the star-studded Metropolitan Division champs are not only expected to take a series, they also have to dominate the opposition in order to satisfy the immense expectations surrounding them.
With the combination of Crosby and fellow star centerman Evgeni Malkin at the top of the rotation and notable players like Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, James Neal and Paul Martin littered throughout the lineup it's definitely become a "Stanley Cup or Bust" situation in the Steel City.
So, when Pittsburgh needed six games to eliminate Columbus in the first round it seemed like everybody was asking "What's wrong with the Penguins?"
It's not a completely unfair question to ask because with the proliferation of talent in Pittsburgh, the bar should be set pretty high for the club. The Pens have made it out of the second round only once since winning it all in 2009, putting added pressure on the club to deliver another Cup. The fact that Pittsburgh made it to the conference finals last spring counts for little, considering the Pens were swept by Boston and outscored by a 12-2 margin over the four games.
A big topic of conversation in the middle of the first round was Crosby and Malkin's lack of goal-scoring. But, after Malkin turned in a hat trick to help Pittsburgh clinch the series in Game 6, that likely put an end to the discussion for now.
Malkin ended with seven points on three goals and four assists. Crosby failed to score a goal in six games, but with six assists to his credit it's difficult to say he was unproductive. Still, Crosby hasn't recorded a goal in his last 11 playoff games and if he goes long without scoring one in this series it could become an issue once again.
Crosby is the odds-on favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP after running away with the regular-season scoring title in 2013-14. But even a 104- point season and a slew of trophies won't insulate the Penguins captain from criticism if Pittsburgh doesn't go far in the 2014 postseason.
With highly-skilled centermen like Crosby and Malkin at their disposal, it's no surprise the Pens are at their best when they're scoring a lot. Pittsburgh managed to score 21 times (3.50 goals per game) in the opening round against Columbus, but also surrendered 18 goals in the series.
Pittsburgh's best point producers in Round 1 were both defensemen, as Martin and fellow blueliner Matt Niskanen each recorded eight points. Niskanen had two goals and six assists, while Martin notched eight helpers.
Letang, who missed a big chunk of the regular season after suffering a stroke, is usually known as the club's top offensive weapon from the back end, but he only managed one goal against Columbus. He has 14 goals and 48 points over 86 career playoff games.
Martin was the workhorse on the back end, logging an average of 27 minutes, 19 second of ice time per game in Round 1. Next was Brooks Orpik (23:35) and Letang followed with just under 23 minutes of ice time per contest.
Orpik, however, sat out the last two games against Columbus with an undisclosed injury and was replaced in the lineup by Robert Bortuzzo. He is questionable for Game 1 of this series.
Standout rookie defenseman Olli Maatta played in all six games in Round 1 and posted two assists.
Nine Pens' forwards scored goals in the opening round and five of them had more than one. Jussi Jokinen and Brandon Sutter tied Malkin for the team lead, while Kunitz and Brian Gibbons each had two tallies.
Even more troubling than Crosby's no-goal, six-point performance in the opening round was the production of Neal. After logging 27 goals and 61 points in just 59 games during the regular season, Neal only managed a goal against the Blue Jackets.
While Crosby and Malkin get their share of the blame when things go wrong for Pittsburgh, nobody has been criticized more than No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who like those centermen also was a key part of the 2009 Cup-winning team.
Last spring, Fleury was replaced by Tomas Vokoun as the club's starting goaltender after Game 4 of the opening round against the New York Islanders and did not start another game in the playoffs. Fleury struggled at times during the conference quarterfinals against Columbus, but not enough for head coach Dan Bylsma to make the switch to current backup Jeff Zatkoff.
For the most part, Fleury was solid against the Blue Jackets in Round 1. He ended the series with a .908 save percentage and 2.81 goals against average. The 29-year-old is 49-36 with a .903 save percentage and .273 GAA throughout his playoff career.
NEW YORK RANGERS
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 45-31-6 (2nd place, Metropolitan)
2014 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Philadelphia 4-3 in conference quarterfinals
Despite thoroughly dominating the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round, the New York Rangers still needed seven games to move into the conference semifinals.
As a result of the Rangers letting that series go longer than it should have (plus some brutal scheduling by the league office), New York's playoff schedule could become an issue for the club in Round 2.
The Flyers and Rangers met on Tuesday and Wednesday for Games 6 and 7. New York will now face Pittsburgh on Friday for the opener of the Eastern Conference semifinals with Games 2 and 3 set for Sunday and Monday. That gives New York five games in a span of seven days, while Pittsburgh will have had three full days off before the start of Round 2.
If the Blueshirts can handle the workload they should be able to give Pittsburgh a run for its money in this series. The Rangers do not boast a Crosby or a Malkin in their lineup, but the club possesses superior depth at both ends of the ice.
New York was frustrated time and again by Flyers goaltender Steve Mason at the end of the first round, but the club's 19 goals over the series were enough to get the Rangers into the second round for a third straight spring.
The Rangers threw a balanced scoring attack at Philadelphia, with eight players tied for the team lead with two goals apiece and 17 skaters in all registered at least one point.
Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, both members of Tampa Bay's 2004 Stanley Cup-winning team, led the way with six points on two goals and four assists, while fellow forwards Carl Hagelin, Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello each had two goals and two assists. Even physical forward Daniel Carcillo joined the fun, as the ex-Flyer scored two goals against his former team, including the first marker in Wednesday's 2-1 Game 7 victory.
If there is one guy who needs to get going for New York its the club's top offensive weapon Rick Nash. The big, talented winger led the team with 26 goals during the regular season, but he failed to score against the Flyers while notching four assists.
Over 23 career playoff games, Nash only has managed two goals while recording 10 assists.
Another problem for New York heading into this round is on special teams. The Rangers picked the Flyers apart while skating 5-on-5, but New York struggled mightily while on the power play and penalty kill in Round 1.
New York was just 3-for-29 on the power play against the Flyers and didn't score with the extra man in the last five games of the series. The Rangers also allowed Philly to score six times on 21 chances with the man advantage.
The biggest advantage New York has over the Penguins could be in net, where Rangers backstop Henrik Lundqvist is as steady as they come. The 32-year-old Swede posted a .919 save percentage and 2.11 GAA in the seven games against Philadelphia
Lundqvist is a big reason the Rangers are so difficult to beat in a long series. With its win over Philly, the Blueshirts became the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 in the first round in three consecutive postseasons. In five career Game 7s, Lundqvist is 4-1 with a 1.00 GAA, a .963 save percentage and has allowed two goals or fewer in all five games.
New York head coach Alain Vigneault relies heavily on his top-four defensemen and it's easy to see why. Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman are all capable of playing two-way games, but they'll have tougher assignments in Round 2 against the loaded Penguins.
McDonagh, who shrugged off a shoulder injury to play in all seven games in the opening round, is the clear No. 1 on New York's blue line. He led the team in ice time with an average of 25:04 per game against the Flyers, although he failed to register a point in the series after pacing the Rangers defense with 14 goals and 43 points during the regular season.
Girardi had a goal and two assists to lead New York's blue line in scoring, while Staal and Stralman each had two points. Staal notched a goal and assist and Stralman posted a pair of helpers.
While the top-four guys all averaged over 19 minutes of ice time in the first round, the final pairing of Kevin Klein (13:27) and John Moore (15:06) were used far less.
In order for New York to advance to the conference finals for the second time in three years, the club is going to have to do something its never done before: beat the Penguins in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh is 4-0 all-time in postseason series against the Blueshirts and the Pens boast a 16-4 record over those four playoff encounters. The only time New York was able to post more than one win in a series against the Pens was in the 1992 Division Finals, when Pittsburgh downed the Rangers in six games en route to its second straight Stanley Cup title.
The most recent playoff encounter was in the 2008 conference semifinals when Pittsburgh ousted the Rangers in five games.
The Pens and Rangers split four meetings during the 2013-14 campaign, with both teams recording 2-1-1 records.
Crosby and Kunitz led Pittsburgh with six points apiece during the season series with New York, with the captain notching a goal and five assists and Kunitz delivering three goals and three helpers. Malkin only played in two of the four meetings and had a goal and an assist.
Zuccarello posted two goals and four assists to lead the Rangers in scoring against the Pens. Derick Brassard, McDonagh and Pouliot each posted two goals in the matchup.
Both Fleury and Lundqvist started all four games in net. Pittsburgh's No. 1 netminder had a 3.12 GAA in the season series, while Lundqvist was slightly better with a 2.88 GAA.
Pittsburgh's inconsistent play over the last several postseasons is a concern, but the club should be able to take advantage of the Rangers' busy schedule in the early part of this series. If Fleury and the Pens' defense can keep from imploding then Pittsburgh should be able to skate into the conference finals for a second straight year.
The Rangers' best bet to advance lies in net with Lundqvist. He needs to be at the top of his game, especially early in the series when fatigue could be an issue for New York's skaters.
New York is a more talented team than the Blue Jackets, but fortunately for the Pens this series offers a better matchup for them. Expect Pittsburgh to jump on a tired Rangers team at the start of the series and hold on from there.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Penguins in 6
05/01 14:14:28 ET