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Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Rangers

by Michelle Crechiolo / 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: 43-27-12
VS New York Rangers
Overall: 53-22-7
Home: 25-11-5

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
Gm 1 Thursday, April 16 7 p.m.
Gm 2 Saturday, April 18 8 p.m.
Gm 3 Monday, April 20 7 p.m.
Gm 4 Wednesday, April 22 7 p.m.
Gm 5 *
Friday, April 24 TBD
Gm 6 *
Sunday, April 26
Gm 7 *
Tuesday, April 28
Games marked in BOLD indicate home games.
* If necessary
All times EDT
  F Pascal Dupuis, blood clot
D Christian Ehrhoff, upper body
D Kris Letang, concussion
D Olli Maatta, upper body
D Derrick Pouliot, upper body
  D Kevin Klein, upper body


After the New York Rangers eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Second Round of last year’s postseason, the two teams will meet again this year in the First Round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here are a few of the main storylines to follow as the series progresses…

For the first time in a long time, the Pens aren’t entering the postseason as one of the favorites as they struggled down the stretch. Entering their regular-season finale on Saturday in Buffalo, the Pens had gone 3-9-2 in their previous 14 and were on a five-game winless streak (0-4-1). Their entire season had come down to that 82nd and final game, as they needed the two points to clinch a ninth-consecutive berth.

But Marc-Andre Fleury put the team on his back and carried them through the adversity, just like he’s done all year – posting his NHL-best 10th shutout in a 2-0 win over the Sabres to ensure that the Pens would make their ninth consecutive trip to the postseason. And now that they’re in, it doesn’t matter what has happened over the past month. It may not have been pretty as they're the eighth seed in the East, but at the end of the day, the Pens earned the right to be in this position to compete for a championship – there’s 16 teams who didn’t, including Boston and defending champ Los Angeles – and now it’s a new season. Every club is starting at 0-0.

The Pens are going to have a tremendous challenge against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers, but this isn’t the same team that got eliminated by them in seven games last year. It’s a completely different one, in fact. There’s a new coaching staff and so many new players, and it’s going to be exciting to see how they perform and contribute over these next couple of weeks. Especially players like Patric Hornqvist, who finished the regular season with 18 points in 19 games and will likely be camped out in Henrik Lundqvist’s crease all series, David Perron, who may not be scoring as much lately but is an absolute battler, and Maxim Lapierre, who was acquired partly because of his playoff experience.

In order to advance, the Pens will have to find a way to win four games against the best team in the NHL. After advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last spring, the Rangers didn’t have the strongest start this fall – going winless in 12 of their first 24 games. But starting with their 4-3 overtime win against the Pens on Dec. 8, the Rangers started rolling and didn’t stop. They finished with a 53-22-7 mark for a franchise-record 113 points, which earned them their first Presidents’ Trophy since 1994 – which is the same year they went on to win their last Stanley Cup.

The reason for the Rangers’ success is their all-around depth. They’ve always had an excellent defense backstopped by the brilliant Henrik Lundqvist and strengthened with the additions of Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle, but this year their offense has been just as elite as the Rangers finished the season ranked third in the NHL in that category. Their first line has driven their production, as Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello have been together for the majority of the year and have developed an incredible chemistry together. And unfortunately for the Pens, those three players have dominated them over the last year.

And not only are the Rangers the top team in the NHL – they’ve owned the Pens back to last year’s playoffs. The two teams met in the Second Round, with Pittsburgh taking a 3-1 series lead behind the incredible play of Marc-Andre Fleury, who earned back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3. The Pens had the Rangers right where they wanted them, and then it all fell apart.

The Pens had opportunities in Game 5 at home and Game 6 on the road to close out the series, but were unable to do so – which put them in a do-or-die position in Game 7. And the Rangers, who rallied around Martin St. Louis after the sudden death of his mother and were carried by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, won their third consecutive game to take the series. They kept going from there, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and losing to the Kings in five games.

The Rangers continued their dominance of the Pens into the regular season, beginning with a 5-0 blowout on Nov. 11 – which put an abrupt end to a 7-game winning streak and stood as one of their worst losses of the season. They ended up going 3-0-1 against Pittsburgh, with Lundqvist getting a lot of help as the Rangers averaged four goals per game in those contests. But while it certainly seems like the Rangers are in the Pens’ heads, we all know anything can happen when it comes to the playoffs. As we saw the last time these teams met at this time of year, momentum can shift just like that.

A Penguins blue line that’s already been without Olli Maatta since November and has had to play with just five guys on numerous occasions down the stretch may be forced to enter the playoffs without top-four defensemen Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff. And as if that wasn’t a big enough challenge, the Pens are going to be facing a team whose offense finished the season ranked third in the NHL and has burned them over the past year with their scoring depth even when Pittsburgh had a (mostly) healthy back end.

Center Derick Brassard has been particularly deadly, as he has an active eight-game point streak against Pittsburgh dating back to the beginning of last season – not to mention he finished with four goals and 7 points in their seven-game series last year. His right wing Mats Zuccarello recorded three assists in their pivotal Game 5 win and has points in seven of his last eight regular season games vs. Pittsburgh, and while left wing Rick Nash didn’t score in last year’s playoff series, he had four goals in four games against the Pens this season and a career-high 42 tallies overall.

The Pens are going to have to figure out a way to contain them and the rest of the Rangers’ attack if they want to win this series, and that’s not going to be easy to do. But it looks like Marc-Andre Fleury will be up to the challenge, as he has been terrific all season long. The netminder, who turned 30 in November, has matured so much since he entered the league back in 2003 – both from age and experience – and is now in his prime as a goaltender. He’s been the Penguins’ MVP through everything they’ve dealt with this season – especially down the stretch playing behind an incredibly depleted blue line. He’s never been more calm, steady and consistent, which should give the Pens a lot of confidence against this opponent.

Rangers fans saw the season flash before their eyes when franchise netminder Henrik Lundqvist took a puck to the throat in the second period of a game against Carolina on Jan. 31. But while he ended up missing 25 games over two months with a vascular injury, the 31-year-old netminder was able to return on March 28 against Boston. While his first game back didn’t go too smoothly as Lundqvist surrendered four goals in the first 26 minutes of a 4-2 loss, he began rounding back into form over the last two weeks of the season – finishing the year with wins in five of his next six games.

Lundqvist, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2012 and has been a finalist four times, is obviously an elite goaltender in the league who has built an incredible reputation. But heading into last year’s playoffs, the majority of his success had been in the regular season as Lundqvist had yet to win the Stanley Cup or even reach a Final. Well, he certainly answered any questions about his big-game ability as Lundqvist led his team to the Final last season. And while the Rangers fell in five games to the Los Angeles Kings, Lundqvist did his part – standing on his head and coming up with the big saves whenever his team needed them – to get them there.

Lundqvist has only been back for a couple weeks after missing a big chunk of time, so if he does falter at all, the Rangers are confident going to backup Cam Talbot if needed. Talbot started 24 games while Lundqvist was out and went 16-4-3 with five shutouts. He’s proven himself as more than capable of handling the net.
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