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Round 1 Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Rangers

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins vs. Flyers Round One Schedule:

Wednesday, April 11 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Friday, April 13 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Sunday, April 15 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 3:00 p.m. - NBC
Wednesday, April 18 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Friday, April 20 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Sunday, April 22 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - TBD - TBD
*Tuesday, April 24 - Tampa Bay at PITTSBURGH - TBD - TBD

Pittsburgh Penguins
Overall: 48-26-8
VS New York Rangers
Overall: 46-27-9
Home: 27-10-4

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
Gm 1 Wednesday, April 13 8 p.m.
Gm 2 Saturday, April 16 3 p.m.
Gm 3 Tuesday, April 19 8 p.m.
Gm 4 Thursday, April 21 8 p.m.
Gm 5 *
Saturday, April 23 TBD
Gm 6 *
Monday, April 25
Gm 7 *
Wednesday, April 27
Games marked in BOLD indicate home games.
* If necessary
All times EDT
  F Beau Bennett, undisclosed
F Pascal Dupuis, IR
G Marc-Andre Fleury, concussion
D Olli Maatta, lower body
F Evgeni Malkin, upper body
F Kevin Porter, ankle surgery
F Bryan Rust, lower body
F Scott Wilson, lower body
  D Ryan McDonagh, upper body


The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers meet in the playoffs for the third-straight postseason. New York won the first two meetings – eliminating the Penguins in five games last spring, and in a seven-game series in 2014 that saw the Rangers come back from a 3-1 deficit.

Overall, this will be the seventh time that the Penguins and Rangers have met in the playoffs. The Penguins have won four of the six all-time playoff meetings. The only team the Penguins have faced more often is the Washington Capitals (8 meetings).

This season, New York won, 3-0, on February 10. After that, Pittsburgh was victorious in the final three contests. The Rangers scored the first four goals of the season series, but Pittsburgh scored 12 of the final 17 goals.

Here’s a look at the biggest storylines…

When talking about the Pens recently, Hall of Famer Paul Coffey said “I wouldn’t want to play them in the first round, I can tell you that.” That’s because the Pens went on an absolute tear down the stretch, going on an 8-1 run to end the season and recording wins in 14 of their last 16 games and 18 of their final 23.

It was the perfect finish to Pittsburgh’s in-season turnaround that began when the club promoted Mike Sullivan to head coach on Dec. 12, and had a much different feel than last season – where the Pens limped into the postseason, both literally and figuratively. It took them until the 82nd game of the year to clinch the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, where they drew a matchup with the Rangers – who had won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team.

The Pens have flipped the script. This time, they are the ones who enter the playoffs as the NHL’s hottest team while the Rangers struggled down the stretch. And though the Pens certainly look like a serious contender, they can’t plan the parade just yet. Sullivan said his team has been in a playoff mindset for a while now, which means trying to win each game as it comes. He thinks it takes a short-term focus and not getting ahead of themselves to make sure they stay on task and focus on the game right in front of them. That’s what they’ve done and what they must continue to do.

After all, this organization knows perhaps better than any other how heavy the weight of external pressure and expectations can be. And the Rangers have had their number the last couple of years. So the Pens have to remember that while they finished the regular season strong, that’s behind them now. It’s time to move onto the postseason, where all 16 teams begin with a 0-0 record.

Beginning Dec. 12 through the end of the regular season, you can argue no NHL player was better than Sidney Crosby and no defenseman outperformed Kris Letang – and those two are the biggest reasons the Pens finished where they did.

Crosby starred under Sullivan, rebounding from a five-point October that saw him tied for 14th in the scoring race at the end of the first month to a third-place overall finish with 85 points (36G-49A). The NHL’s ‘First Star’ and leading scorer in March, Crosby outscored all NHL players from Dec. 12 through the end of the season, tallying 66 points (30G-36A). He tallied points in 20 of his final 21 games (11G-18A-29P) to carry the Pens from the outskirts of the playoff field to home-ice advantage in the opening round.

The Pens are going to need him to continue that strong play there, which isn’t going to be easy against the Rangers. New York did a tremendous job of shutting him down the last two years, with defenseman Marc Staal helping hold him to just three goals total in the 12 postseason meetings between the teams.

Meanwhile, Letang’s ascent mirrored Crosby’s and it resulted in a career-year offensively with 16 goals, 51 assists and 67 points – a total that ranked third among NHL defensemen and was the most recorded by a Pens defenseman since Sergei Gonchar also had 67 in 2006-07.

Letang paced all NHL defensemen from Dec. 12 through the end of the season, tallying 53 points (15G-38A) in 46 games. An NHL All-Star for the third time, Letang was a two-way force for the Pens – tying for the club lead in blocked shots with 122 while averaging 26:57 minutes, the fourth-highest mark in the entire NHL. He also logged the most shorthanded minutes among team defensemen for one of the NHL’s top-five PK units, while contributing three shorthanded assists, which tied for the top mark in the league.

The Pens had to play without Letang in the first round last year as he was recovering from a concussion suffered late in the regular season. Look for him to be a huge difference-maker now that he’s healthy and playing at the highest level of his career.

Another way things have changed between the two teams is how they match up. The Rangers’ biggest strength for several years was their defense, backstopped by elite netminder Henrik Lundqvist. They finished last season with the NHL’s third-lowest goals-against and their ability to transition quickly out of their end and play an up-tempo, speed game was too much for Pittsburgh to handle the last couple seasons – especially without Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff last year.

However, this year the Rangers have struggled in their own zone. They’ve had trouble with breakouts and have had a lot of breakdowns in coverage. As a result, they haven’t moved down the ice with their usual ease and New York’s goals-against dropped to 15th in the league while their penalty kill – which was 6th last season – fell to 26th.

Meanwhile, the Pens have become a much quicker team and their offense – which ranked 19th last season – jumped to third under Sullivan, who got the club back to its high-scoring ways. They’ve built an identity based on resilience, compete and speed, and other teams have remarked how difficult they are to defend with the way they skate – and the Rangers have been one of those clubs who have had a tough time.

One key reason for that change is that Carl Hagelin has switched sides, joining the Penguins in midseason this year after helping the Rangers eliminate Pittsburgh each of the past two years. Last spring, Hagelin scored the overtime, series-clinching goal in Game 5 to end Pittsburgh’s season. He had six points (4G-2A) in 12 playoff games against Pittsburgh while playing for the Rangers, who traded him to Anaheim last summer.

New York’s loss was Pittsburgh’s gain. Hagelin proved to be an incredible addition to the Pens’ lineup, producing 27 points (10G-17A) in 37 games following his acquisition. He scored 6 game-winning goals with Pittsburgh, the most ever by an in-season Penguins acquisition. But surprisingly, it’s not his numbers that have been his biggest contribution to this team. It’s his skating.

Hagelin is arguably the fastest player in the NHL and he has completely changed the dynamic of the Pens. Sullivan has taught his team to play a speed game, and Hagelin has been the most crucial factor to that component of their identity. His speed is a lot to handle for anybody, but especially for a Rangers team that will be without captain Ryan McDonagh for at least the start of the Round 1 and has a couple of veteran blueliners that have lost a step in Dan Girardi and Dan Boyle.

As long as Marc-Andre Fleury recovers from the concussion that kept him out of the final five games of the regular season, this series figures to be another matchup between two of the all-time greats in goal as Henrik Lundqvist will get the call for the Rangers. Entering the 2016 playoffs, Lundqvist has won 374 games and Fleury 357, the second and third-highest totals among active goaltenders. Both rank among the 18 winningest goalies of all time.

Lundqvist had dominated the Pens entering this season, and it seemed like that would continue when he posted a shutout in New York’s 3-0 win over Pittsburgh on Feb. 10. However, that all changed in their next matchup on March 3. In the second period, teammate Ryan McDonagh collided into him and the Rangers goalie wanted a stoppage of play. He ended up throwing his net off the moorings to try and get one. Instead, Lundqvist was given a penalty for delay of game and the Pens went on to score three times in a 1:39 span at the end of the period to chase him from the net.

That was the first of three straight wins against Lundqvist, who surrendered a total of 10 goals against to the Pens. While his numbers have been decent, he’s had stretches where he uncharacteristically struggled – especially during the final month-plus of the season as he was pulled three times over his last nine starts. Lundqvist got yanked a total of eight times on the year, which is crazy considering that over the previous four seasons, he was pulled seven times TOTAL.

But despite all of that, Lundqvist is still a world-class, experienced veteran netminder and he may be going up against an inexperienced one down at the other end if Fleury is not ready to play. Rookie Matt Murray did a tremendous job of taking over both times Fleury was out with a concussion this season, going 9-2-1 (a record that included a five-game win streak) with one shutout in 13 games.

However, he left the Pens’ regular-season finale in Philadelphia late in the first period after getting his helmet knocked off by Brayden Schenn and was replaced by Jeff Zatkoff – who had spent much of the second half as Pittsburgh’s third goalie and was appearing in his first game action since Feb. 20. There was no update on Murray following the game, but the Pens recalled Tristan Jarry from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the next day.

While the Rangers are relatively healthy, they are expected to be missing one key player for at least the start of Round 1. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who was New York’s lone All-Star representative this year and is their captain, leader and anchor of their top pairing, suffered an upper-body injury when he blocked a shot on April 4 against Columbus.

On Pittsburgh’s end, fellow All-Star Evgeni Malkin missed the final 15 games of the season and 25 of the team’s last 33 contests after suffering an upper-body injury March 11 – also vs. Columbus – that was given a 6-8 week timeline for recovery.

He isn’t the only Pens player banged up. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury sat out the final five games due to a concussion. Defenseman Olli Maatta, who partnered with Kris Letang the majority of the season, missed the last nine games. Also missing action at the end of the year were key bottom-line contributors Scott Wilson (final 15 games), Bryan Rust (final 6 games) and Kevin Porter (final 19 games).

While there will certainly be a few familiar faces, there will be a number of new ones as well.

New York added Pens killer Eric Staal to their lineup in a swap with the Carolina Hurricanes. The second-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft behind Fleury, Staal has been nearly a point-per-game performer against Pittsburgh with 48 points (21G-27A) in 49 career regular-season contests. When the Penguins beat the Rangers, 3-2 in overtime, on March 27, Staal scored both Rangers goals.

Meanwhile, there are just nine players (three of whom are injured) on Pittsburgh’s current roster that skated in last year’s series, thanks to an overhaul by general manager Jim Rutherford and his staff. During the offseason, they acquired superstar winger Phil Kessel along with forwards Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr. During the season, Rutherford traded for Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz and, of course, Hagelin.

The team also let young players come up and play, most notably Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson, Oskar Sundqvist, Derrick Pouliot and Matt Murray. All of those players, minus Wilson, would be looking to make their NHL playoff debuts in this series.

The ones to keep a closest watch on – in addition to Schultz, who will be skating in his first postseason in his fifth NHL year – would be Kuhnhackl, Rust and Sheary. Those three stepped up in big, meaningful games late in the year.

When the Pens hosted the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in a divisional showdown on March 20, Kuhnhackl was the star of the game despite the firepower in both lineups. In another huge game against the Rangers the week before, Sheary chipped in two goals against Lundqvist in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 win.
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