|Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will host the New York Rangers on Sunday, March 30, at 12:30pm ET. Pens-Rangers highlights|
The game has major implications for both teams in the final week of the NHL regular season. Entering the weekend, the Penguins have a six-point division lead against the New Jersey Devils and the Rangers, who each have a game in hand on them. Pittsburgh is also a point ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, who play Friday and Saturday, in the battle for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Canadiens also have a game in hand on Pittsburgh.
After Sunday's game with the Rangers, the Penguins will have three games remaining while the Canadiens, Devils and Rangers will have four. The Rangers host the Penguins on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers entered the weekend in third place in the Atlantic Division and sixth place in the Eastern Conference. They are tied with the fifth-place Devils with 91 points but have two fewer victories. They are one point behind the fourth-place Ottawa Senators in the East and five points ahead of the ninth-place Washington Capitals.
The game will also be the second game back for both teams' No. 1 centers, Crosby and Scott Gomez of the Rangers. Crosby had missed the previous seven games and 28 of the prior 31 with a high ankle sprain. Gomez suffered a rib injury March 22 in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
NHL.com enlisted the help of 10-time Stanley Cup champion Scotty Bowman to analyze the game. Bowman coached the Montreal Canadiens to five Stanley Cups, the Penguins to one and the Detroit Red Wings to three Stanley Cups. He was also director of player development for the Penguins when they won in 1991.
Here is Bowman's scouting report:
Crosby is back -- Crosby was in better condition in Thursday's 3-1 home win against the New York Islanders than the last time he came back but his timing was off a bit. That's the danger you have when a player has been away. They did so well without him, so he should be a big asset now. Crosby is gearing up for the playoffs. They had him on a line with Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis, a good pickup defensively, and kept the first line centered by Evgeni Malkin with Ryan Malone on the left wing and Petr Sykora on the right side.
Hossa got hurt in his first game with Pittsburgh after coming over with Dupuis in a trade with Atlanta so Thursday night was the first time Crosby and Hossa have played together. Hossa appeared to get hurt on a third-period check and didn't return. If he's all right, they should be dangerous when they get their timing down.
That makes it hard for the Rangers to know who to check because there are two top lines to be concerned about. The Rangers play a good "contain" game. They have shut down a lot of teams. If they see that the Penguins have a lot of attack going, they'll try to stymie them. I'm not sure they can do that because they are looking at a lot of weapons.
People are looking at Pittsburgh as a team with a lot of weapons to contend with. It's amazing how well they did without Crosby. As long as they don't have a letdown, they should play very well. They can't look at Crosby and say, he's back; we can slack off. They have to treat it as a plus and keep playing as hard as they have been. When Crosby and Hossa get going, they'll be a tough tandem to stop.
Rangers' chemistry -- It has taken the Rangers quite some time to mold into a team the free agents they got last summer, particularly Gomez and Chris Drury, with the guys from last year. They have their scoring spread out pretty well. The Penguins will have to worry about Jagr and Brendan Shanahan. So, the Rangers do have offensive weapons for the Penguins to worry about. I thought Gomez was coming into his own before he got hurt and he played well in the Rangers' 3-2 home win Thursday against the Devils.
Shanahan's power-play goal Thursday against the Devils was only the second in their last 31 opportunities which is hard to believe the way they handle the puck. Sometimes, when you get into a defensive mode, it's hard to switch. You would think that with their weapons, they could turn it up and play offense. It's been a struggle all year, despite the fact they have guys who have been successful on power plays their whole careers. It's getting them to play together that's not easy.
Jagr likes a wide power play and he doesn't like to get into traffic. If he has space and time, he can come in with the shot himself or make the next pass. That way, he and Shanahan can shoot off the pass. That's the weapon they should be developing.
Fleury is back -- Pittsburgh has been able to improve in the second half of the season, in part because of the way goalie Ty Conklin played during Marc-Andre Fleury's 27-game absence due to an ankle injury. Fleury is back and has looked good. He had 127 scoreless minutes before the Islanders scored. Fleury was a hell of a goalie earlier this year before he got hurt.
Pittsburgh's defense isn't as good defensively as the offense is offensively, so I think they will play a puck-possession game with those top two lines. If the defense can get the puck quickly to the offense, they'll be fine. That's how they should play defense, not let the other team have the puck.
Crosby is especially good at holding onto the puck. That lures opponents into playing an overly defensive game. You don't want to do that if you're playing Pittsburgh. Just play a straight defense and generate some sort of attack against them.
I've seen games where the Rangers didn't forecheck much, but Pittsburgh is tough to deter in the neutral zone. You have to pressure their defense. I realize it's tough to do that against Pittsburgh, so it will be interesting to see what happens.
Expect good goaltending --Henrik Lundqvist will almost certainly be in net for the Rangers. He's played in 67 games this year and has been one of the NHL's best goaltenders. He's had some ups and downs but he's played well overall. He's very tough to beat on breakaways. Lundqvist reads plays well and he'll have to be a big factor against Pittsburgh.
Conklin leads the NHL with a .923 save percentage, but he and Fleury have identical, good goals-against averages. Fleury played Thursday so maybe Conklin will play Sunday but I think they'll be planning to get Fleury more work that he needs. There is plenty of time between games so I think they'll play Fleury on Sunday.
There for the taking -- My thinking was that if they could win Thursday against the Islanders and Sunday and Monday against the Rangers, they could wrap up the Atlantic Division right there. New Jersey is in a bit of a slump, so I think Pittsburgh can have the division in hand by Monday and focus on getting the East's No. 1 seed away from Montreal. They want to avoid having to play the middle seeds in the playoffs.