Much of the talk leading into tonight's series opener between the Rangers and Penguins in Pittsburgh has been about which injured players will be able to play in Game One and which ones will remain sidelined.
From the Rangers side, head coach Alain Vigneault stated earlier in the week that team captain Ryan McDonagh is definitely out tonight, though McDonagh was able to skate and take part in drills today at CONSOL Energy Center following the club's optional morning skate. McDonagh did not speak with reporters afterwards, instead walking directly into a closed off back area behind the dressing room.
Vigneault would not say which defenseman would replace McDonagh in the lineup, though all indications are that rookie Brady Skjei will get the call, just as he did in the final three games of the regular season that McDonagh also sat out. The head coach smiled and answered a question about Skjei playing tonight by replying, "If I was a betting man...".
Skjei, who has appeared in seven games with the Rangers this season, told reporters after the morning skate that he is excited and ready to go this evening.
"On the plane ride here it began settling in, it's the playoffs, and I'm excited and I feel I'm ready to go," said the 22 year-old Skjei. "Throughout my career I've been able to stay even-keeled no matter the stage, but this is the biggest stage. I am confident right now. I feel comfortable, and I've been working for this my whole life. I'm ready."
At the Penguins morning skate No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury worked in the starter's net and was the first goalie off the ice. Though he did not speak with reporters afterwards, it is expected that Fleury will start in this evening's series opener after missing the final ten days of the regular season with a concussion.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan was non-committal when asked about his starting goalie, saying that he would make a game-time decision.
Sidney Crosby said of Fleury, "We have a sense of confidence with him in there".
Fleury, who has won 357 regular season-games in his NHL career, is 53-44 with eight shutouts and a 2.65 GAA in 98 career post-season matches. He backstopped the Penguins to their most recent Stanley Cup championship in 2009 and was terrific in last spring's first-round series against the Rangers despite the Penguins losing in five games.
"We expect him to be in," Vigneault said of Fleury. "He's practiced the last couple of days and he was on the ice this morning, so unless someone tells us otherwise he's the goaltender we're getting ready for tonight."
Sullivan, who was an assistant under John Tortorella for five seasons with the Rangers through 2012-13, was asked Wednesday if he has an advantage game-planning for the Blueshirts because he is so familiar with many of New York's key players.
"Any time you have the opportunity to coach players you know what their strengths are and what their weaknesses may be, and so you try to find areas you might be able to exploit," said Sullivan. "But at the end of the day with the guys that I coached when I was there, they've really evolved, they're at another level now."
A couple of Rangers forwards with ties to Pittsburgh were popular interviews following the morning skate.
J.T. Miller was born and raised in East Palestine, OH, just outside Pittsburgh, and Vigneault said of him on Wednesday, "I think J.T. this year has grown quite a bit and has become a very important part of our team at both ends of the rink. We're going to need him to play real well."
Tanner Glass was a member of the Penguins during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons and thus has a unique perspective on this rivalry between New York and Pittsburgh. He was part of the Penguins team that let a 3-1 series lead evaporate in seven-game loss to the Rangers in 2014, and then was with the Blueshirts last spring when New York eliminated Pittsburgh in five games.
"I think the past is out the window, to be honest," Glass said on Wednesday. "It's a new season, a new series. It is what it is. If you're the underdog you like it. If you're favored you like it. Let's play."