Somehow the first four months of the NHL season has passed without the Rangers having played a single game against their division rival Pittsburgh Penguins. That will finally change Wednesday night when the Rangers and Penguins face off at the CONSOL Energy Center.
“It’s kind of crazy, isn’t it?” Rangers’ alternate captain Derek Stepan asked. “I can’t remember waiting so long into a season to play one of our division rivals for the first time. I’m looking forward to it. These are always great games against these guys.”
The Rangers have already played 53 games this season, and the Penguins 52; but perhaps the schedule makers knew what they were doing. Both the Rangers and Penguins are surging, playing some of their best hockey of the season at the same time after some earlier difficulties on each side, and now these Metropolitan Division foes will play four games between now and March 27—four games that could very well decide how the standings shake out behind the runaway first-place Washington Capitals.
“I am really looking forward to that game tomorrow,” stated head coach Alain Vigneault following Tuesday’s practice in New York. “I know they have been playing extremely well so it should be a real difficult challenge for us.”
While the Rangers have won three in a row and six of their last eight games to maintain their hold on second place in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins have surged from out of a playoff spot and into third place in the division by winning six of their last seven.
That makes Wednesday’s match-up an important one, as the Penguins have closed to within four points of the Rangers, not to mention the remaining three—all of which will be played in the month of March.
The fact that the Rangers have knocked the Penguins out of the playoffs in each of the last two years adds some spice to these games, as well.
“We’ve had their number the last couple of years,” noted center Derick Brassard, who has recorded nine points in his last five games. “So I’m sure that gives them a little extra something when we play each other.”
Like the Rangers, the Penguins had a forgettable month of December, and since have turned things around under new head coach—and former Blueshirts assistant—Mike Sullivan. It doesn’t hurt Pittsburgh that Sidney Crosby has pieced his game back together and is playing at an all-world level, having scored 18 goals in his last 19 games, including at least one in each of his last seven games, coming off a two-goal, two-assist outing Monday night against the Anaheim Ducks.
“When he’s feeling it he’s tough to defend,” explained Tanner Glass, Crosby’s former teammate in Pittsburgh. “And right now he’s feeling it.”
While Crosby leads Pittsburgh’s charge, it’s not just him the Rangers need to be aware of. There’s defenseman Kris Letang playing some of the best hockey of his career. Evgeni Malkin, even though he has missed the last three games with an injury, has 23 goals and 49 points in 49 games this season. The dangerous Phil Kessel has been added to the mix. Former Ranger Carl Hagelin has six points in nine games since being acquired from Anaheim. And there’s also a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury.
“It’s no surprise to anybody in the league that the Penguins are playing the way they are,” said Vigneault. “They’re an elite team with elite players..so there’s no doubt that’s a strong powerful team. The only way you can have success against that team is to defend first in full five-man units.”
The Rangers have been defending much better of late, and Henrik Lundqvist has ratcheted up his game between the pipes; and even without the injured Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh, the Blueshirts still feature a lineup that includes the red-hot line of Brassard, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast that has recorded 19 points in its last five games together.
Two top teams playing at their best with a lot on the line. Not too much more fans of the Rangers and Penguins could ask for beginning with Wednesday’s clash in Pittsburgh.