The Pittsburgh Penguins have a chance to knock off the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers, but they probably need more healthy bodies than they had at the end of the regular season to do so.
Pittsburgh played with five defensemen and without superstar center Evgeni Malkin at times in the final month of the season. The Penguins posted some of the best puck possession numbers in the NHL during that stretch, but the results did not follow.
Kris Letang was in the discussion for the Norris Trophy this season, but a concussion is expected to keep him out of the series and possibly the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs regardless of how far the Penguins advance. Letang led Pittsburgh’s defensemen in points, time on ice per game, shot attempts percentage (SAT%), and SAT% relative to the team average (SAT%rel).
The Penguins could also be without defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. Pittsburgh added defensemen Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin to the postseason roster, and each could end up playing. Harrington had solid possession numbers in 10 games, while Dumoulin faced tougher assignments and did not fare nearly as well in his eight games.
Last season the Rangers improved down the stretch and became one of the top possession teams in the League. This season, with defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Benoit Pouliot and Brad Richards elsewhere, they have regressed in that department. Defenseman Dan Boyle has played well, but in sheltered situations. The numbers for defenseman Marc Staal, without Stralman as his typical partner, have declined.
The most perplexing dip has been center Derek Stepan, who has actually faced easier competition this season because he's spent most of it not playing with wing Rick Nash. He and forward Martin St. Louis are both in the red when it comes to puck possession.
New York paid a hefty price for defenseman Keith Yandle, but he got more comfortable in late March and early April and could help the Rangers be better with the puck in the postseason than they were in the regular season.
The Rangers third line features a lot of speed and a rookie center in Kevin Hayes. How the bottom two lines fare could be an issue against other playoff teams, but in this matchup New York likely will have the advantage.
The Penguins may also add forwards to the roster from the American Hockey League, but veteran forwards like Craig Adams, Maxim Lapierre, and Steve Downie (after a hot shooting start) have struggled and depth remains a big problem for Pittsburgh. Malkin may not be completely healthy, and if he and Sidney Crosby can't generate offense at a world-class level, the Penguins could be in trouble.
Pittsburgh has been known for its offense in past seasons, but new coach Mike Johnston has altered the way the Penguins play. It may not be as cosmetically pleasing on the scoreboard, but their newfound possession and shot suppression prowess has helped Marc-Andre Fleury produce his best season since 2007-08 and makes the Penguins a dangerous underdog, provided enough impact players are healthy.