Each Wednesday throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the game that intrigues him most that night. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The New York Rangers have had the edge and been the better team in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it's still only a 2-1 series in their favor and each game has been decided by one goal, so it's closer than it may appear.
The Rangers, though, have a chance to make that illusion go away Wednesday when they play Game 4 against the Penguins at Consol Energy Center (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports 2, ROOT, MSG).
If the Penguins are going to avoid going on the brink of elimination before the series turns back to New York they're going to have to make their pluses count and turn their minuses around.
Here is my breakdown of each, for both teams, heading into Game 4.
Pluses: Based on personnel, who is there and who is not there, injuries, Pittsburgh is much closer in this series than we thought it would be. That's no disrespect to the Penguins, it's just a given because of the gravity of their injuries.
Second of all, Evgeni Malkin hasn't really teed it up yet and they're still only one game down through three games. He hasn't really done anything yet at all. Let's just say he's been a non-factor, but make no mistake, he still has the ability to turn it on, score three points in Game 4 and win it for the Penguins to even the series. That it hasn't happened yet makes me think it still will, and that's a plus.
Another plus is that Marc-Andre Fleury has played well. He's been their best player in every game.
Minuses: The Penguins haven't started on time in any game yet in this series. They've been late in every game and they've trailed early in every game. That's a big minus.
Part of them not starting on time is how they've played in the neutral zone in the first half of the games. They iron it out way too late, and that's why the Rangers have gotten so many good opportunities through their quick-up plays.
In the second half of games the Penguins are doing a good job, but in the start of games, in the first half of games, they're just brutal in how they defend in the neutral zone and how they play, period. They're lucky the Rangers haven't taken advantage of more of their opportunities early in games.
Another thing is their penalties. I know they were better in Game 3, but there's no need for these stick penalties when you're missing personnel and because of that you can't be the same team. When you're an intelligent team like the Penguins it's even more frustrating. When you're an undermanned intelligent team like the Penguins it raises the frustration level even more.
I heard guys saying they haven't moved their feet and are instead using their sticks. How is that happening in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? That's not good enough.
One other thing is that I just believe that they haven't fully had the desperation they need.
The Penguins are playing the top team in the National Hockey League, they can't exactly just ease their way into games. That goes back to what Sidney Crosby told me before Game 3. He said, "We've gotta be aggressive, we've gotta initiate."
On top of all that, they're way too selective with their shots. I mean, come on, you're playing against Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers 'D', do you think you're going to be getting easy looks? They have 71 shots on goal through three games, and that's not enough.
I'd understand if they had Olli Maatta and Kris Letang and they wanted to hold onto the puck a little more to be selective because they do that well, but right now they have to be volume shooters. That should be obvious. That's also the reality. They need to shoot.
Pluses: One key plus for the Rangers is they're playing their speed game, which is their bread and butter.
A big part of their game plan was to attack Pittsburgh. It doesn't really matter the opponent because they've done it all season long, but especially because of the fact the Penguins are wounded they wanted to attack them with speed. That's exactly what they've done.
The Rangers by and large have played their game, the up-tempo game, and they've taken advantage of the neutral zone because of it. They've scored three goals because of quick-ups and two because they've caught the Penguins on bad line changes.
Pittsburgh is not a team built to defend a lot, but the Rangers are getting easy zone entries because of their speed and are getting in on the forecheck. They're getting retrievals by winning foot races, or winning battles to regain possession.
Another plus is Henrik is Henrik. That's huge for him and for them as a team. As goalie coach Benoit Allaire says, "Be the answer, not the question." Lundqvist has been the answer, particularly in the second half of games, once Pittsburgh finds its groove.
A third thing is how well the Rangers support players are playing. Benoit Pouliot, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle were huge parts of the team last season that went to the Stanley Cup Final, and there is no drop-off this season.
The guys in the Rangers bottom-six forward group have played well and they needed that. Those guys are vital.
Minuses: We talked about the Penguins not being as intense as they need to be; the Rangers overall haven't been as intense as they can be. They're not playing with the same intensity in the second half of games the way they're capable. They haven't played a full 60 minutes yet.
In addition, Martin St. Louis is too important to this team if it plans to go deep in the playoffs to not be on the board. He has had a couple of looks, but he hasn't really done anything of note yet. He's too important to be that way.
I understand St. Louis doesn't have to be a point-per-game guy on this team, but the Rangers need him not only for his work ethic and leadership, but his production. They need his production without question. He's too important of a player on this team.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Can Pittsburgh finally solve the neutral zone?
They clearly know how to do it because they do it well in the third period, but they need to do it early in the game to establish the neutral zone as being in their favor.
2. Will the Penguins start on time?
This goes back to the neutral zone, but it's a general thing -- the Penguins have been 15 minutes late to every game. How in the world does that happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
3. Will the Rangers bring their desperation level up?
They have had it up at the level it needs to be at in each game, but not for the full 60 minutes. Do it for the full 60 minutes and I don't see how the Penguins can beat them unless Fleury is just unbelievable.