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Role players will be key in Penguins-Rangers matchup

by Kevin Weekes

The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers used to be rivals in the Patrick Division. Then they met as Atlantic Division foes. They're still together in the new Metropolitan Division.

No matter what division they're in, the Penguins and Rangers are poised to meet in a great Wednesday Night Rivalry matchup (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2).

You usually know what you're getting from the Penguins, especially when Sidney Crosby is firing on all cylinders like he is now. But the story coming into the game is the Rangers' improved play of late.

After starting the season with a 3-6-0 record on a long road trip, the Rangers are playing better hockey. They've won four of six games and played a very good Anaheim Ducks team close in a 2-1 loss Monday.

The Rangers really are a different team the past two weeks or so. One of the things I hadn't seen from the Rangers earlier in the season was creativity from their offense. Their attack was very one-dimensional. They were very stagnant; there wasn't enough motion.

In their win against the New York Islanders on Oct. 29, there seemed to be a lot more motion offensively. They were crisscrossing more, changing the point of attack and making more cross-ice passes. They also had more of a net-front presence. You put all that together and it's no surprise they've been better.

They didn't have those elements in their first seven or eight games. They still have to do more of those things on a more consistent basis, but at least now we are starting to see those things in their game. So they're trending upward.

Not surprisingly, that turnaround has been keyed by Henrik Lundqvist. Let's be honest, Henrik is playing better. That team is accustomed to Lundqvist playing at a certain level, and he wasn't playing at that level for the first few games. I'd say in his past three or four starts, he looks more like the Henrik Lundqvist we've all come to expect. That goes a long way for that team and their confidence to be able to make plays.

There will definitely be a special intensity to the game. The Penguins have won four straight, and anytime you're playing against Crosby and the Penguins, you want to be able to stand on your head or make great plays. Crosby's obviously the best in the world, and he has Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and the whole cast of characters. Marc-Andre Fleury has been awesome; he's really gotten off to a great start.

But for me, the key to the Penguins has been their role players. We know they're a high-octane team, and they're really missing James Neal, but Jussi Jokinen has been a great surprise. He's playing very well. He's a very versatile player, and the Penguins are getting value and great production out of him. It's guys like Jokinen, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz who will make the big plays Wednesday night.

The Rangers also have a number of role players who have been a big part of their recent improved play. But you'll find most of them on the blue line. Having allowed just 15 goals in the past nine games, the defense overall has been better. That said, I don't think it was terrible at the start of the season. Sure, they had their problems early on, and, as I said, Henrik Lundqvist wasn't Henrik Lundqvist. But now you're looking at a solid unit with Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and John Moore, who has been a pleasant surprise. Throw in Michael Del Zotto and Marc Staal, and to me, that's a really good, young defensive corps. There's no reason why those guys shouldn't be playing well.

The roles players will be important in this contest. But let's be honest: There's plenty of star power too, even with Rick Nash still injured. Obviously the Penguins are a very skilled team. They can make you pay if you're not on your "A" game defensively. Even if you are on your "A" game, they can make you pay. The Rangers have their stars too. When you look at the individual players on both teams, it's hard not to get pumped up.

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