Each Wednesday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins do not like each other. The Metropolitan Division rivals played each other in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season with the Rangers prevailing in five games. In 2014, the Rangers, down 3-1, rallied to beat the Penguins in seven games in the second round.
After a 16-3-2 start to the season, the Rangers struggled in December and January, but have won three straight and seven of 10. The Penguins also have won three straight and six of seven games. The Rangers are four points ahead of the Penguins (having played one more game) for second place in the division.
The Rangers (30-18-5) visit the Penguins (27-18-7) at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: They are playing better the past three games and are coming off a 2-1 win against the New Jersey Devils on Monday. Henrik Lundqvist, who had a poor stretch earlier in the season, was great Monday (28 saves) and has been great in this current three-game stretch.
Video: NJD@NYR: Lundqvist robs Boucher on two-on-one break
The production they have gotten out of Derick Brassard has been a surprise. He leads the team in goals (18) and points (40) and has nine points in five games. J.T. Miller has been hot, with 17 goals this season, including nine in 10 games. It's no surprise the Rangers' recent success has coincided with the production of these two.
Minuses: The Rangers have been inconsistent this season. They got off to an amazing start, then had a tough stretch for a few months and have since rounded into form. Also, they haven't played well on the road (10-13-3). Most of their success has come at Madison Square Garden, where they are 20-5-2.
Missing defenseman and captain Ryan McDonagh (concussion) and Rick Nash, who has missed nine games after blocking a shot, has hurt them. That's arguably their best defensive player and offensive player.
Lastly, they are not consistent in how they defend. Last season you could make the argument they were a top-four defensive corps in the League, and that hasn't been the case this season.
Pluses: Two words: Sidney Crosby. He's attacking the net and going into the middle of the ice. He has a goal in seven straight games (10 goals in seven games) and has 34 points (18 goals) in 21 games and has looked as good as he ever has. He is assertive and you want the puck on his stick to make a difference. Another thing that makes a huge difference for Crosby is a healthy Chris Kunitz, with whom he plays well. I have to credit Mike Rupp at NHL Network, because he first said people need to relax, Crosby would get back his scoring touch and he has.
Video: Sidney Crosby scores unassisted
Then there's Kris Letang. He has 40 points in 42 games, and the Penguins record with him in the lineup is drastically better (26-10-6) than their record without him (1-8-1). Kunitz is on a tear with eight goals and 26 points in 17 games.
Their defensemen have become more involved offensively. Not only Letang, but also Trevor Daley and Olli Maata. They can join the rush in the neutral zone and can make plays in the offensive zone, like forwards, which allows them to play the way I think they should.
Although he won't play this week because of a lower-body injury, Evgeni Malkin has been huge. He has called out the team and then backed it up on the ice, dominating games the Penguins needed to win.
Minuses: One of the only negatives for the Penguins is injuries always seem to bite their team at the wrong time. It was Letang, Maatta, Kunitz and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury earlier, and now Malkin.
Since the Penguins are playing this offensive game now, are they going to hit this balance down the stretch of attacking, as well as winning games on lockdown if they have to? I don't know if they can put up four or five goals every night, so the defensive play will be important in some games. One of challenges they will face, because they are playing more offensively, is Fleury needing to make more saves.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Crosby. No explanation needed.
2. Which Rangers defensive pair plays against Crosby's line?
3. Do the Rangers play a physical game as they did against the Devils?