Sidney Crosby knows what’s coming.
The New York Rangers – Pittsburgh’s opening-round opponent in the Stanley Cup playoffs – will be keying on shutting down the Penguins captain with tight coverage and physical play.
“I don’t want to change too much, I believe in what I do out there,” said Crosby, who led the NHL with 1.09 points-per-game and finished third in the scoring race with 84 points. “If there are adjustments I have to make, I’ll make them. You just have to be ready to compete.”
In last season’s second round matchup between these two clubs, the Rangers, mostly due to the defensive work of blueliner Marc Staal, held Crosby to just one goal and three points as New York advanced in seven games – though Crosby was dealing with a right wrist injury at the time.
“(Staal) is going to try to make things tough, just like a lot of defensemen try to do in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “Understanding that, getting ready to compete and every shift trying to create something.”
In last season’s playoffs the Pens lost Game 1 in overtime, but won three straight, including back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3, to take a 3-1 series lead. However, the Rangers won the final three contests of the series, including Game 7 in Pittsburgh, to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.
“It seemed like as the series went on they were able to get more momentum, extended shifts,” Crosby said. “That’s going to happen in the playoffs. You’re going to have ups and downs throughout the game and they’ll generate momentum. Later on in the series we didn’t do a good enough job of finding ways to grab it back.”
The Rangers won the regular-season series against Pittsburgh with a 3-0-1 record. Although two games were decisive wins for New York - 5-0 and 5-2 - the other two contests were split, one-goal games that required 60-plus minutes to finish.
Although the Pens coaching staff examined last year's playoff contests, they'll rely more on the regular-season series for the planning and preparation.
"I watched the (playoff series) from the outside," head coach Mike Johnston said. "It's more relevant what's happened this year.
"The two overtime games, one we came back in New York and pushed it into overtime, were really good games to base our series on."
The Rangers finished third in the NHL surrendering 2.28 goals-against per game. That’s aided by their all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. But the Pens have seen Lundqvist and the Rangers many times as division foes to know how to beat them.
“It’s no secret at this time of year. You’re going to have to really fight to get to the front of the net,” Crosby said. “The power play is going to be big. You have to take advantage of that and get the momentum, find ways to score that way.”
The two teams took different routes entering the postseason. The Rangers finished the year with the top record in the NHL at 53-22-7 for 113 points. The Presidents’ Trophy winners won six of their final seven games down the stretch – and their only loss came with the team resting several top players with the league title clinched.
The Pens on the other hand had to scrape, claw and fight to hang on to a postseason berth. For the past two weeks the Pens were trying to hang on to a playoff spot in the East as other teams charged at them, an odd dynamic for a team accustomed to having playoff tickets printed as a formality. It came down to the wire for Pittsburgh – which clinched its playoff berth with a 2-0 victory in the final game of the regular season at Buffalo.
“It’s a different way of getting in. We’ve been fighting here for a while,” Crosby said. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an extension of what the last couple weeks have been like. It feels like for the last week and a half we’ve already been in the playoffs.”
Crosby also knows that whatever happened in last year’s postseason and the regular season are now meaningless. All that matters is how Crosby and his team plays when the puck drops at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night for Game 1.
“We’re all starting fresh,” Crosby said. “It’s a grind, a roller coaster emotionally and physically. It’s the best time of year to be playing. The margin of error is small in the playoffs. One mistake here and there is a pretty big difference.
“Everyone has their own way of dealing with the pressure. I think the biggest thing is trying to elevate your game. It’s a fun time of year. To go out there and compete at the highest level and understand that there are a lot of teams that want to be there. You work all year to get to that point.”