It was six Wednesdays ago that the New York Rangers last hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden. At the time, the Penguins were flying and slowly starting to get healthy as the Rangers were working to overcome a 2-6-0 start.
The Penguins got off to a strong start that night, but the Rangers came away with a big 5-1 win over their Metropolitan Division rival.
They're back at it tonight, but much has changed with the Penguins.
First and foremost, the Penguins are obviously without a lot of key personnel. Evgeni Malkin is out with an injury, as are each of Pittsburgh's top four defensemen. They're going to have to really buckle down to overcome these losses. I think the onus is going to be on their forwards to continue to come deep in their defensive zone and help out the defense because the blue line is decimated right now. Also, because they don't have Malkin down the middle either, the forwards will also have to make themselves outlets for the defensemen to transition the puck and get going north.
With all these star players out of the lineup, Pittsburgh is going to have to make some small alterations to their game plan. The biggest takeaway I got from talking to guys there was that their forwards can't fly into the zone as much. I wouldn't be looking for as many stretch passes and things of that nature. The key for them is a lot of down-low support in their own zone. You're never going to replace all those guys, but that's one way you can minimize all the damage from them being out of the lineup.
The Penguins also still have enough speed so when they do come through the neutral zone, they will be able to make a play. Another thing to look for, and they did this in their 3-1 win Monday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, is how they now cycle the puck a lot more. They're not going to be able to play off the rush as much.
This is a great opportunities for the Rangers on home ice. Obviously the Penguins are missing guys, but the Rangers have got to start getting some consistency to their game. They'll have a good period and then some guys will sleepwalk. There isn't the kind of consistency to this Rangers team that there should be. It's time for them to get that going against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
Some guys have been really good for the Rangers. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, Brad Richards has been excellent. Mats Zuccarello has been a nice piece and Rick Nash has scored some nice goals, but there has been a lot of inconsistency in that lineup. The only thing that is really saving them right now is the fact that they're playing in the Eastern Conference. But this is a big opportunity for them on home ice on rivalry night at the Garden.
You'd like to think the fact that they're playing Crosby and a big rival in Pittsburgh will get them going. But it has to translate into the way that they play. I don't think these guys are anywhere near their ceiling. Talking to guys in that room, they know that they have as a team a lot more to give. Why not start tonight?