As Marc Staal stated after practice on Monday, the Rangers are not afraid of facing the NHL's hottest team in the opening round of the playoffs this spring; but as many Rangers, including the team's veteran defenseman, also pointed out, that fact does not preclude the Blueshirts from having a major dose of respect for the Pittsburgh Penguins either.
"They're playing really well, but as much as the regular season matters I feel that once the puck drops in the playoffs things change," stated Staal. "It's a different game, and a different type of hockey. We're excited for a fresh start in this series, and we know they'll provide a great challenge for us."
Pittsburgh won 14 of their final 16 games to edge the Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division, securing home-ice advantage in this best-of-seven first-round series, as well. In that final push the Penguins had a six-game winning streak and an eight-game winning streak--a solid month's worth of play which began on March 11 with a 3-2 win in Columbus.
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault was frull of praise for the Penguins on Monday, even saying that Pittsburgh has been the league's best team for much longer than the past month.
"Probably since Christmas they've been the best team in the league," offered Vigneault. "They've been doing it with a real sound defensive structure and a real quick transition. Obviously (Sidney) Crosby--if he's not the best player in the world, he's close to it--and I think his game, after a slow start points-wise, he's been on a tear."
While the Penguins closed out the season with 104 points, they were just three better than the Rangers who finished with 101, the second straight season they surpassed the 100-point mark. New York won three of its last four games and was 6-3-1 over its final ten.
"We were a 100-point team and yet there has been criticism of this team, which only goes to show you how high the standards are around here," noted veteran defenseman Dan Boyle. "The slate is wiped clean now. We know we're playing a real good team, but we're confident at the same time."
Ever since training camp the talk among the Rangers has been that this season will be judged solely on how the team succeeds in the playoffs. After a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014 and reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2012, 2014 and 2015 the Rangers are well aware of how their success will be measured by the end of June.
"There's a will on our side to get the job done," stated Vigneault. "It's a great team we're playing. We're going to have to play our best. It's that simple."
Of course the Rangers have beaten the Penguins each of the last two year's in the playoffs--rallying from 3-1 down to beat Pittsburgh in seven games in 2014 before ousting the Pens in five one-goal games a year ago.
"Those were highly competitive and hard fought series, and I expect the exact same thing (this year)," Vigneault said.