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Penguins save chance for revenge against Rangers

NHL.com @NHL

The Eastern Conference First Round series between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins pits the Presidents' Trophy winners against a team that slumped to the finish line and didn't clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs until the last day of the season.

That's one way to look at it.

The other way is, it's a rematch of one of the most memorable series from last season's playoffs.

The Rangers rallied from 3-1 down against the Penguins to win the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round series in seven games.

The Penguins, who needed a 2-0 win Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres to get into the 2015 playoffs, have to be thinking about revenge.

New York's come-from-behind win is likely the reason Mike Johnston is the coach in Pittsburgh and Jim Rutherford is the general manager.

Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero gave way to Johnston and Rutherford in the offseason, but a promising regular season nearly derailed to the point of disaster in the final month.

Pittsburgh went 4-9-2 in its last 15 games after going 39-18-10 in its first 67. The fourth win came Saturday, and it was enough to get the Penguins into the playoffs for a ninth straight season. That is the second longest streak in the NHL behind the Detroit Red Wings' run of 24.

However, the Penguins scored 25 goals in their final 15 games. That's an average of 1.67 per game; they averaged 2.86 per game in their first 67 games.

Scoring was the Penguins' biggest problem in their past two playoff exits. They scored three goals in the final three games against the Rangers last season, and had two goals in a four-game loss to the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final.

The Rangers, who won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time since 1993-94 with 113 points, have not had any scoring issues this season, particularly against the Penguins. New York was third in the NHL with 3.02 goals per game and outscored the Penguins 16-7 while going 3-0-1 in the season series.

New York defeated Pittsburgh 5-0 on Nov. 11 and 5-2 on Jan. 18. Sandwiched in between was a 3-2 shootout win by the Penguins on Nov. 15 and a 4-3 overtime win by the Rangers on Dec. 8.

Rangers forward Rick Nash, who finished with 42 goals, was at his best against the Penguins with seven points (four goals) in four games. The seven points were the most Nash had against any opponent this season.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist had a .950 save percentage and 1.69 goals-against average in four appearances. He allowed seven goals on 140 shots.

Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby was limited to two points and a minus-2 rating in the four games; center Evgeni Malkin scored three goals.

Forwards

Depth down the middle coupled with a combination of size and speed on the wings has enabled Alain Vigneault to roll four lines consistently for the majority of the season.

Left wing Rick Nash has been a sensational scorer because he's been checking to create his chances, and getting inside the defense, playing around the net. He needs to continue to do that. He didn't do it enough last postseason, which is why he scored three goals.

Nash has been at his best on a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. They have created a cycle game that has opened space, particularly in front of the net, for Nash. Brassard had the best season of his career, and Zuccarello had 50 points for the second straight season.

The speed of Chris Kreider and the playmaking of Derek Stepan have been weapons on another scoring line. Vigneault can use either Martin St. Louis or emerging J.T. Miller on that line and get production. It depends if the coach wants to go with size (Miller) or speed (St. Louis).

The emergence of Kevin Hayes has given the Rangers three legitimate scoring lines. A line of Hayes centering Miller and Carl Hagelin has been able take over games by playing a strong puck-possession style. St. Louis has played with Hayes and Hagelin.

Dominic Moore is a staple on the fourth line as a faceoff specialist, checker and penalty killer. Jesper Fast can play up in the lineup if necessary. Tanner Glass fills out the top 12.

The Penguins are in a similar situation to a season ago at forward, except the predicament might be worse. Pittsburgh was criticized for being too top-heavy when it lost three straight games after holding a 3-1 lead in a best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round series against the New York Rangers.

They were heavily reliant on two lines against the Rangers. This time around, they are reliant on one.

With forward Evgeni Malkin laboring after returning from two stints out of the lineup because of injuries in late March and early April, the Penguins have depended on their top line of Sidney Crosby centering right wing Patric Hornqvist and left wing Daniel Winnik. The line did its job but was not enough for Pittsburgh to avoid a late slump that nearly caused them to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06.

The lines have been rearranged several times, making it difficult to predict what the Penguins will look like in Game 1. Forward David Perron played primarily alongside Crosby since being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 2, but recent struggles sent him to the bottom six before landing at right wing next to Malkin.

Pittsburgh will need the depth it thought it added during the offseason and throughout the regular season to finally produce if it is to make any noise in the East.

Defensemen

The Rangers have arguably the best top-six defense group in the Eastern Conference and maybe in the NHL.

Provided Kevin Klein (arm injury) is healthy, Vigneault can utilize three balanced pairs with left-handed shooters Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Keith Yandle, and right-handed shots Dan Girardi, Dan Boyle and Klein. Matt Hunwick, a lefty, is an option.

In addition, they are mobile and move the puck quickly. The Rangers are at their best when they are playing fast; it starts from their defense.

McDonagh, Girardi, Staal and Boyle averaged more than 20 minutes per game, but unlike other teams, the Rangers didn't tax their defensemen with 25-plus minutes. They spread their minutes, which could be beneficial in the playoffs.

McDonagh and Girardi are typically challenged with handling top forwards. McDonagh was able to generate 30-plus points; he was particularly strong in his offensive game in the latter stages of the season.

Boyle had a slow start, hampered by a hand injury and the flu, but he has the best possession numbers among the regular defensemen. He's been playing lately on the second pair with Staal, who has the longest reach of any of the defensemen.

Yandle also had a slow start after a trade from the Arizona Coyotes on March 1, but as he got comfortable his production rose. Klein was one of the most reliable defenseman at both ends of the ice before he was injured. The hope is he's ready for Game 1.

The forwards are a sizable question mark for the Penguins. Their defense might even be a more glaring issue.

Pittsburgh's defense was its strength through much of the season. The forwards struggled to consistently score more than two goals following a hot first two months of the season, but the defensemen were consistent and carried the Penguins through some lean months, earning points in games when the offense was dormant.

Injuries have threatened Pittsburgh's strength. It's adapted to life without second-year defenseman Olli Maatta, who has not played since Dec. 6 because of shoulder surgery, but a series of further injuries have been too much to mask.

Kris Letang, who experienced a rebound season after suffering a stroke and other injuries last season, is not expected to play after sustaining a concussion against the Arizona Coyotes on March 28. Christian Ehrhoff has been in and out of the lineup throughout the past two months with a concussion. Rookie defenseman Derrick Pouliot sustained a lower-body injury and missed the final two games.

All of this caused the Penguins to play with five defensemen for a stretch late in the season. The remaining defensemen -- Paul Martin, Ian Cole, Rob Scuderi, Ben Lovejoy and Taylor Chorney -- each played more than 20 minutes regularly, which resulted in Pittsburgh's once consistent defense starting to show a few holes and routinely allowing four or more goals in April.

The Penguins are expected to recall reinforcements for the playoffs because the salary cap is no longer a constraint. If Ehrhoff and Pouliot are still out for Game 1, rookies Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin could draw into the lineup.

Goalies

It didn't take long for Henrik Lundqvist to get his game back after sitting out for seven weeks with a vascular injury.

The Rangers survived without him, going 18-4-3 behind Cam Talbot and Mackenzie Skapski, but Lundqvist has to be their best player if they're going to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final and win this time.

Lundqvist shook off the rust quickly, showing his confidence by playing deep in his net, where he is most comfortable, and going post-to-post quickly. He struggled in his return against the Boston Bruins on March 28, giving up four goals, but rebounded and had a strong finish.

He had a .927 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average in 25 playoff appearances last season. Lundqvist has appeared in playoff 92 games and has 43 wins, including nine shutouts. He has a .922 save percentage and 2.24 GAA.

Lundqvist is the only goalie in NHL history who has won at least 20 games in each of his first 10 seasons. He is the only goalie in the NHL to win at least 20 games in each of the past 10 seasons.

Talbot proved that he could handle being a No. 1 in the NHL when Lundqvist was out of the lineup. He started 23 of the 25 games Lundqvist missed, going 16-4-3 with a 2.16 GAA, .929 save percentage and two shutouts.

Once considered the Penguins' biggest concern this time of year, Marc-Andre Fleury is arguably the most dependable player on the roster.

Following a team-MVP worthy regular season, Fleury seems poised to continue his impressive performance into the playoffs, which might be necessary if Pittsburgh hopes to advance. Though the Penguins struggled through the last month of the season, Fleury's play rarely dipped, which kept them competitive despite a lackluster record.

The 30-year-old has always been known as one of the NHL's more skilled regular-season goaltenders. He's impressed while averaging 2.36 goals against in his past four regular seasons entering 2014-15. The concern has been that his performance will slip once April appears.

After winning the Stanley Cup in 2008-09, Fleury's postseason save percentage dipped below .900 in the four ensuing playoffs. Many pundits have questioned if he would ever return to form as a goalie who can be counted on to win a playoff game in the same way he once did in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, which Pittsburgh won 2-1 against the Detroit Red Wings.

Those questions were partially answered last postseason, when Fleury was possibly Pittsburgh's best player. His 2.40 goals-against average and .915 save percentage were each better than his marks during his Cup winning postseason (2.61 GAA and .908 SV%).

The question doesn't seem to be if Fleury has the ability to perform come April anymore. He proved he could a year ago. Now the question is if he can do it again.

Coaches

The Rangers' identity is built on the way Vigneault's teams have historically played. He encourages his players to push the pace and the defensemen to join the rush.

Vigneault has been at his best working in younger players and using patience to allow them to become integral parts of the lineup. Hayes, Miller and Kreider are examples.

Vigneault has shown patience with veterans, including Boyle and Yandle, as they struggled to adjust to his style after coming from Western Conference teams. In addition, Vigneault never wavered when Lundqvist went down, showing immediate confidence in Talbot.

Vigneault's teams, including the Vancouver Canucks, have won a division title in six of the past seven seasons and seven of the past nine. The Rangers won their first Metropolitan Division title, and the Presidents' Trophy, under Vigneault, who is in his second season.

Vigneault won his 500th NHL game on Feb. 14, when the Rangers defeated the Coyotes 5-1.

The most drastic difference between this Penguins team and the one that entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's second seed can be found behind the bench.

Mike Johnston will make his playoffs debut as an NHL coach for the first time after leading the Penguins to their ninth consecutive appearance. It wasn't as easy as former coach Dan Bylsma made it seem a year ago, but Johnston has preached getting prepared to play playoff-style hockey, even if that meant they had to go through a few rough patches during the regular season.

Pittsburgh's rough patches have been noticeable. It also hasn't played up to Johnston's expectations. He has made several changes to the lineup throughout the season, and particularly during the past two months, because of injuries or issues with specific forwards going through dry spells that could be attributed to lack of chemistry.

Johnston might not have his lineup set just as he would like. But with two of the NHL's brightest stars, Crosby and Malkin, high expectations always surround the Penguins. It will be Johnston's job to match those expectations built by Byslma and Michel Therrien before him.

Special teams

The Rangers' penalty kill was among the best in the NHL, but the only negative in their season arguably was their inconsistent power play.

By all accounts, the Rangers should have had a better power play with the personnel and having Boyle and Yandle to quarterback it, but there were too many times this season when they were either passive or mishandled the puck. They haven't taken enough high-quality shots with traffic in front of the net.

These issues were less prevalent later in the season.

The Rangers survived because of their top-five penalty kill. They spread the minutes, with 10 players averaging at least one shorthanded minute of ice time per game.

Girardi, McDonagh and Staal handled the most among the defensemen; Moore, Hagelin, Stepan and Nash were key contributors among the forwards.

The Rangers were able to generate scoring chances off their penalty kill; they finished among the League leaders in shorthanded goals, led by Nash's four.

Pittsburgh's power play started the season converting at more than 40 percent for part of the first two months. On paper, it should be one of the League's more deadly units, with Crosby and Malkin playing to the sides, Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist in front of the net, and Letang, when healthy, manning the point.

Though the power play ranked in the top 10 late in the season, that was deceptive. After that hot start, the Penguins went strikingly cold throughout the rest of the season. What was once a deadly weapon became something Pittsburgh could not depend on to contribute consistently.

The penalty kill has gone in the opposite direction. After starting the season quite leaky, the Penguins have heavily relied on a dominant penalty kill in front of Fleury to carry them through the often-discussed rough patches.

Series changer

Chris Kreider
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 21 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 46
SOG: 180 | +/-: 24
Chris Kreider -- The forward's game is made for playoff success because he's a fast, north-south skater who goes to the net and isn't afraid to crash into the crease to score. He had 13 points in 15 games last postseason by playing a fearless style. Montreal Canadiens fans will always blame him for knocking goalie Carey Price out of the Eastern Conference Final in Game 1 in a goal-mouth crash.

Kreider was a 20-goal scorer for the first time this season. He was at his best when he was skating hard up and down the wall, playing physical and fast. It takes guts to get in his way when he's barreling down the ice. His style is complemented by the playmaking of Stepan.

Kreider is the Rangers' most skilled forward because of his ability to make plays with the puck in tight spaces and when he goes at his ferocious speed. He matches his speed with power, creating matchup problems for any opponent.

Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 28 | ASST: 42 | PTS: 70
SOG: 212 | +/-: -2
Evgeni Malkin -- Crosby led the Penguins in points by the end of the season, but there was something noticeably different about Pittsburgh when its other star center was available and playing at the top of his game. Though Crosby began the season struggling through a few scoring droughts, Malkin became the Penguins' most dependable contributor.

After battling near the top of the Art Ross Trophy chase with Crosby and several other forwards across the League, Malkin sustained a pair of injuries, the first coming against the Boston Bruins on March 14 that caused him to miss seven games in late March and early April. In those seven games, the Penguins went 1-6-1.

If Malkin is healthy and playing at or near his peak, the Penguins are a completely different, and much deeper, team. Without his assistance, they are relegated to a team dependent on one line to produce a bulk of their scoring.

Will win if

RANGERS WILL WIN IF … They play fast, their power play generates some momentum, and Lundqvist is at his best.

When the Rangers impose their speed game, it backs up the opponent and forces it to play on its heels rather than its toes. At that point, the Rangers have the upper hand because they are constantly attacking and are able to roll four lines and three defense pairs to balance the minutes.

They can take risks because of their speed and because they have Lundqvist in the net and an elite defense in front of him.

The Rangers hurt themselves when they slow down. It has happened this season and the usual result is they end up chasing the score. When they move the puck quickly, they create odd-man opportunities and are able to jump on opponents early.

PENGUINS WILL WIN IF … The bottom-six forwards begin to contribute. If not, the Penguins need Crosby or Malkin to carry the load, or Fleury to be fantastic, in order for them to win any particular game. If Crosby and Malkin each play great throughout the series, Pittsburgh could get away with having little contribution elsewhere. Based on recent history, that could very well not be the case. Their top two centers each struggled to begin an Eastern Conference First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets last postseason. Though Malkin ignited as that series went on, scoring a hat trick in a series-deciding Game 6, Crosby was never able to truly get it going. If that is the case again, the Penguins will need forwards Brandon Sutter, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau, Nick Spaling and Beau Bennett to score a few timely goals in order for them to advance.

Written by Dan Rosen and Wes Crosby

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