The Pittsburgh Penguins have won all four Stanley Cup Playoff series they've played against the New York Rangers. They'll try to make it 5-for-5 when they meet in this year's Eastern Conference Second Round.
The Penguins had a few days to rest after finishing off the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday to win their first-round series in six games, though they blew multiple-goal leads in each loss and nearly saw a 4-0 lead completely vanish in Game 6 (a 4-3 win). The Rangers played Games 6 and 7 of their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers on back-to-back nights; they advanced by outlasting the Flyers 2-1 at home Wednesday.
The Penguins eliminated the Rangers from the postseason in 1989, 1992, 1996 and 2008, winning 16 of 20 games. But the teams were about as even as possible during four games this season; each won once (decisively) in regulation at home and once in a shootout on the road. The Rangers outscored the Penguins 14-13 (13-12 in non-shootout goals).
Pittsburgh cruised to the Metropolitan Division title, finishing with 108 points. New York had to overcome a poor start, partly fueled by a season-opening nine-game road trip, but ended up with 96 points and edged Philadelphia for second in the division, earning the home-ice edge that proved to be vital in Game 7 but one they won't have here.
This is usually a pillar of strength for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Any team which can trot out Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal is going to be a handful to handle in a long playoff series.
The scary thing is, Pittsburgh advanced to the second round without huge goal contributions from that quartet. Malkin had a hat trick in Game 6 to lead the Penguins to victory, but those were his first three goals of the series. Kunitz and Neal combined for three goals. Crosby did not score and has gone 11 postseason games without a goal, dating to the second round against the Ottawa Senators last year.
Part of the reason Pittsburgh advanced is the depth scoring it received. Jussi Jokinen had three goals, Brandon Sutter had three goals, and Brian Gibbons had two. But the Penguins enter this series with all kinds of questions about their forward depth because of injuries.
Sutter sustained a lower-body injury in Game 6 when he collided with the side boards. In that game, energy forward Joe Vitale sustained a leg injury after a knee-on-knee collision with Columbus Blue Jackets forward Blake Comeau. Gibbons has been out since Game 2. Sutter and Vitale practiced Wednesday.
The Sutter injury may be the most telling; it depletes Pittsburgh's depth at center and in the faceoff circle. Crosby and Craig Adams took virtually every big faceoff in the third period of Game 6. Sutter is also the Penguins' shutdown center in most scenarios.
One of the keys to the Rangers' win against the Flyers was their offensive depth. Eight players scored at least two goals, and none of them was Rick Nash, who led New York in the regular season with 26 goals.
The Rangers' most consistent line in the seven games against the Flyers might have been the second of Derick Brassard centering Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot. They had a hand in both New York goals in Game 7 and combined for four goals and 10 points in the first round. Pouliot's second-period goal held up as the series-clincher.
Richards had a strong series, playing much better than he did a year ago when he was scratched from the final two games of the playoffs. He had three points in Game 1, including the game-winning goal.
The fourth line of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett saw plenty of ice time and did a masterful job in shutting down the Flyers' top line. They also contributed offensively, with Moore scoring two goals and Boyle finishing with a goal and two assists.
Injuries are a question mark for the Penguins here too. Brooks Orpik, a member of the United States team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, missed the last two games of the Columbus series with an undisclosed injury and his status for the second round is uncertain. At 23:35 of ice time per game, Orpik played the second-most of Pittsburgh's defensemen and was a plus-5 before being injured.
Fortunately for Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, he has a bit of depth. Paul Martin was the best all-around defender in the first-round series and was rewarded with more than 27 minutes of ice time per game. Martin had multiple-assist games in each of the first four and tied for the Penguins lead in scoring with eight points. His ability to either skate or pass the puck out of trouble in the defensive zone is the basis of Pittsburgh's transition game.
Matt Niskanen is the other leading scorer with two goals and six assists. He is in the midst of a breakout season and played some of his best hockey during crucial stretches of the prior series. Olli Maatta seems to be finding his way again after a late-season lull, but he is preparing for Game No. 85 in a rookie season. Rob Scuderi was brought in as the missing piece, asked to recreate the shutdown role he inhabited when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup five years ago. Kris Letang is trying to find his game after missing more than half the regular season after having a stroke in January; the results have been up-and-down.
Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are New York's top pair and average more than 22 minutes per game; McDonagh played more than 25 per game. They will be on the ice for just about every one of Crosby's shifts.
McDonagh missed the final two weeks of the regular season with a shoulder injury, but he’s back at full speed.
Although the top pair gets the majority of the attention for its shutdown ability, coach Alain Vigneault will use his second pair of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman in key situations. Staal had a goal and an assist against the Flyers, and his plus-6 rating led the Rangers. Stralman had two assists and a plus-3 rating.
The third pair has some offensive ability; John Moore is an elite skater, and Kevin Klein is counted on for strength and stability in the defensive zone. The Rangers were the only team in the NHL with three players with at least 15 blocked shots; Girardi had 21, McDonagh had 16 and Staal had 15.
One thing all six defensemen have in common is a fearlessness when it comes to blocking shots. As a team, the Rangers blocked 126 shots, the most in the NHL.
This will always be the question mark for the Penguins as long as Marc-Andre Fleury prowls the crease. There are too many flubs and foul-ups in the past few years to have a total comfort level.
Fleury was one of Pittsburgh's best players in the first round, and his .908 save percentage was better than the sub-.900 marks he put up in each of his past four playoffs. It is equal to the save percentage he posted in 2009, in 24 games, when Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup.
There was the prototypical Fleury sequence in this past series. It came in Game 4 when he misplayed a puck behind the net in the dying seconds of the third period, gifting the Blue Jackets the tying goal. Then, early in overtime, he allowed a goal from a distance to give Columbus an unexpected split of the first four games. Unlike in the past, Fleury did not dwell on the error, turning makings 23 saves and allowing one goal to win Game 5.
Henrik Lundqvist to steal a game until the third period of Game 7 against the Philadelphia, but of course he came up big.
As the Flyers pushed to stay alive in the series, Lundqvist stopped 10 of 11 shots to preserve a 2-1 victory.
McDonagh called Lundqvist "the backbone of our team," and Girardi said the veteran is a relaxing presence because of his skills and athleticism.
"It's great to have him back there," Girardi said after Game 7. "You know if the puck bounces over your stick or you make a bad play, you know you got a pretty good guy back there to bail you out. ... He's one of the best goalies in the League."
Bylsma has been under the microscope this season for a variety of reasons, including the four-game sweep by the Boston Bruins in last season's Eastern Conference Final, the mini-swoon this season which forfeited a chance at the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and his performance at the Olympics, where the United States team he coached finished fourth and did not medal after losing gold in overtime four years earlier with John Tortorella as the coach and the same core of players.
Bylsma met every challenge thrown his way in the first round. When the Penguins needed a spark, he united his two best players, Crosby and Malkin, in Game 5. The response was back-to back wins to close out the series. He backed Fleury after Game 4, giving his goalie the confidence to regroup and relocate the fundamentals of his game. In Game 6, Bylsma navigated tricky waters in the third period with a short bench and a surging opponent. Despite being short two injured forwards, including a faceoff specialist, Bylsma mixed and matched his way out of trouble and into the second round.
Vigneault had the Rangers attack with speed in all three zones, and it was something the Flyers never were able to match.
Vigneault also was masterful with line matchups, using Dominic Moore and Boyle to bottle up the Flyers' top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell whether the games were in New York or Philadelphia.
However, Vigneault wasn't overly concerned with getting what some would consider desired matchups. He was as comfortable using Staal and Stralman against Giroux's line as he was using McDonagh and Girardi.
Vigneault also showed a deft touch with his lineup, using Daniel Carcillo for his experience and physical play in Games 3, 4 and 7, and Carcillo responded with two goals, including the first one in Game 7. The coach also gave rookie J.T. Miller his first playoff experience in Game 5; Miller responded with one assist each in Games 5 and 6.
Vigneault has coached in high-pressure situations before, taking the Vancouver Canucks to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, and is a calm presence on the bench.
Special teams was one area where New York fell short in the first round.
The Rangers got two power-play goals to win Game 1, but New York had one goal on 23 extra-man chances in the final six games and finished the series failing on their final 20 opportunities.
The Rangers allowed the Flyers to score multiple power-play goals in two games and at least one extra-man goal in four games. The Rangers had the third-best penalty killing in the regular season, and when you combine that with the way New York blocks shots, it wouldn't be surprising if the Rangers are vastly improved while playing shorthanded.
Brandon Sutter -- At their best, the Penguins use a three-center attack which presents matchup problems for the opponent and allows them to possess the puck more often than not. It was a model that served them well when Jordan Staal occupied the No. 3 center role and Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. Since his departure, his replacement, Sutter, has had on-and-off success. He had a monster first-round series and was one of the difference-makers. But he was injured in Game 6 and his status is uncertain, although he did practice Wednesday. If he can't go, the Penguins will look far different in their approach.
Mats Zuccarello -- The small forward plays a big game at big moments. His brilliant spin-o-rama backhand pass to Carcillo for a goal in Game 7 was one example of his skill. Despite his size, Zuccarello is fearless and plays physical. He was a big part of the Rangers' most consistent line against the Flyers and has shown a propensity to perform well on the big stage. Although the spotlight will be on Nash, St. Louis and Richards, Zuccarello has a real chance to steal the show.
Penguins will win if … They don't beat themselves. Through the course of a long season, the Penguins have proven themselves to be the better team and that is why they will enjoy home-ice advantage. But any advantages of being better across an 82-game schedule will be quickly forfeited if they lose their focus or composure. The Penguins have taken ill-advised, unnecessary penalties throughout the season. They can't do that here. They had defensive breakdowns throughout the first round, and those will be further exploited now. Fleury can't have the mental lapses that have been a part of his narrative for five years now. The Penguins, simply, have to play to their potential if they hope to make the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight year.
Rangers will win if … They're able to recharge the batteries for the second round. They won't have much of a layoff after seven grueling games against the Flyers, but one good part is that Lundqvist rarely was tested and should be fresh. The Rangers also need better play on special teams and strong contributions from their top line. But all of those things will work better if the players are able to recover quickly.