The regular season is over and the Rangers get the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round with the home ice advantage. The best-of-seven series begins on Tuesday with game one at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers completed their outstanding 52-24-6 record with a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals at the Garden Friday night. The record doesn’t mean peanuts because it’s the first team to 16 wins that matters now.
The Rangers lost their first game of the regular season to the Penguins, 1-0 in late February, but beat them in the final three match ups by an 11-3 margin. That included a 3-0 shutout at the Garden on April 7th, when Igor Shesterkin made 30 saves.
There have been some memorable post season series between the Rangers and Penguins, who will be meeting for the eighth time in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In 1992, there was Adam Graves’ controversial four game suspension for slashing Penguins Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in game two. Graves missed the remainder of the series that turned in game 4 on the infamous Ron Francis’ goal from just outside the blue line that somehow beat Rangers’ goaltender Mike Richter.
In 2014, the Rangers rallied from a three games to one deficit to defeat the Penguins in seven games. It marked the first time that the Rangers beat Pittsburgh in the post season.
In 2015, the Rangers beat the Penguins in the first round. Pittsburgh got even in 2016 when they turned the tables and beat the Rangers in the first round, enroute to winning their fourth Stanley Cup.
Of course, health is a major factor in any playoff series.
Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp missed the final two games of the regular season but it doesn’t appear as if those are serious enough injuries to keep them sidelined.
Penguins starting goaltender Tristan Jarry has a broken foot and is in a walking boot. Casey DeSmith has filled in admirably down the stretch, including a 52-save shutout of the Boston Bruins on April 21st.
As capable as DeSmith has been, he is not Igor Shesterkin, who gives the Rangers a huge advantage in net.
Pittsburgh still features two top players in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. During the season, Pittsburgh made a big acquistion when they obtained Rickard Rakell from Anaheim. Rakell could be an x-factor.
The Rangers were solid on special teams during the season and will need that to continue. Although the penalty killing unit has been good all season, the Rangers will need to limit the Penguins’ power play opportunities.
The Rangers power play was fourth in the NHL (25.2%) but the Penguins penalty kill was third in the league at 84.4%. On the flip side, the Rangers killed off penalties at an 82.3% clip, seventh in the NHL while the Penguins’ power play was 19th in the NHL at 20.2%. When you consider the firepower that the Penguins feature with the man advantage, that relatively low number could prove to be a moot point.
Chris Kreider will be under the gun to continue his remarkable season, while the Rangers will be counting on Mika Zibanejad, Panarin and Copp to bring their “A” games.
Reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox is, arguably, the best defenseman on the ice. Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang is a terrific defenseman and has stung the Rangers before, but he is older now and not as good as Fox at this point. Barclay Goodrow is a two-time, Stanley Cup winner so his veteran leadership will be most welcome.
There’s also the unanswered question of what the Rangers will get from their young guys like Alexis LaFreniere, Kappo Kakko, and Filip Chytil.
One of the keys to the series for the Rangers is to get the lead because the Penguins don’t like to play from behind. The Rangers can play from behind, they’ve done it so many times this season, but it would behoove them to make Pittsburgh play uphill.
Consider these numbers:
Pittsburgh is 35-5-3 when they score first, 11-20-8 when they don’t .
When the Penguins lead after one, their record is 24-3-2. When they lead after two, it’s 32-1-2.
When Pittsburgh is trailing after one, they are 5-12-5. When they trail after two, they are 5-21-3.
If the Rangers score first, they are 33-5-2. When the opponent scores first, the Rangers are 18-19-4
If the Rangers lead after one, their record is 24-4-0. When they lead after two, they’re 31-1-3, including an 18-0-1 at MSG.
When the Rangers trail after one, they are 11-13-4. Trailing after two, the Rangers are 4-19-2, including 1-12 away from home.
The Rangers were 27-10-4 at MSG and will need to hold serve, although both teams are capable of winning on the road.
The Penguins have the edge in playoff experience, but this is the most talent that the Rangers have put on the ice in a very long time. Experience can overcome talent, but if the Rangers play their game, they should be able to beat the Penguins and advance to the second round.
We’ll be covering the Rangers’ run through the post season right here at nysportsday.com.