Granted, some star power will be missing from both sides, but Rangers vs. Penguins games are always physical and always intense. And seemingly always day games on NBC. The Penguins, still without Crosby and Malkin, will look to give themselves some breathing room between them and Tampa Bay in a battle for 4th in the East, which would give them home ice advantage in the playoffs for the first series. The Rangers, of course, will be hungry for two points in order to ensure they’re even in the playoffs at all. Surprisingly, the Rangers have yet to win four games in a row this season. Today offers them a chance to accomplish that finally. To do that, they’ll have to beat the Penguins once again in their final matchup of the season. The Rangers are 3-1-1 against the Penguins this season and have won both matchups in Pittsburgh. Despite still missing the two big guys up top, the Penguins are still a better team than when the Rangers last faced them. James Neal and former Ranger Alexei Kovalev were added at the trade deadline and form the best winger pair that the Penguins have had in a long time. Though those two haven’t particularly produced, the added depth has paid dividends for the Penguins, who have won 4 of their last 5 are only 6 points away from the Flyers, who lead the East. Let’s look at the keys to the game:
Henrik Lundqvist- Lundqvist didn’t practice yesterday but woke up today feeling well enough to start the game, so Chad Johnson won’t get to face his former organization. Still, you have to be a bit concerned about Lundqvist. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Marty Biron would be getting the start today if he wasn’t hurt himself, if only for precautionary reasons. There’s no doubt that Lundqvist is sore, but he’s a competitor. The only real question is if it’s simply playing through pain or if he is actually hindered from turning his head or raising his glove. Lundqvist has started all games this season against Pittsburgh and has a 2.35 GAA and .919 save percentage in those games.
Marc Staal- While Lundqvist is good to go, Staal is NOT. Staal suffered an undisclosed injury and thus will not be playing today. Tortorella refused to elaborate on the specifics of the injury and how long it will keep him out, claiming that with the playoffs soon approaching he’s afraid other teams will “target” it. as much as I’m curious as to what is wrong with Staal, Tortorella’s right. Being frustrated temporarily is better than having the injury out in the open if it’s something other teams can take advantage of. Given the fact that Staal played the whole game against Montreal without anything to note other than a couple of stitches on his face and the fact that he gave post-game interviews with no sign of injury, I’m going to assume it’s just some sort of soreness that Tortorella doesn’t want to risk aggravating and that he won’t be out much more than a game or two. I’m not going to lie, though, the Rangers are extremely lucky that Crosby and Malkin are out as it is, but they would be even more difficult to deal with with Staal missing. Gilroy is back in the lineup as a result of the injury.
Steve Eminger- The roller coaster ride for Eminger takes another climb today. Eminger, after being a healthy scratch for much of the last few weeks, has been moved up to first pairing with Girardi for today’s game. Eminger’s name hasn’t been mentioned much by Sam and Joe and he really hadn’t done much that was noteworthy the past few games. That’s mostly a good thing, though, as that means that Eminger hasn’t made any big mistakes, and when he’s playing his best thats’ his game. Eminger isn’t going to blast shots from the point. He isn’t going to make ridiculous defensive plays. Eminger can help the Rangers by just being a calming and reliable influence. Marking his man, making simple plays with the puck, etc.
Penguins Penalty Kill- The Rangers’ power play has actually been pretty solid the last few weeks, and it’s not a coincidence that the success coincides with McCabe’s presence in the lineup. Aside from McCabe, the Rangers are playing less of a perimeter game and are getting the puck towards the goal with players there to do something with it. Still, there’s no comfort with out power play, and the Penguins certainly aren’t going to make it any easier. Pittsburgh has the top ranked PK in the league. They drop to 4th at home, but that’s still clearly impressive. The Rangers are going to have to get all five players on the ice involved if the power play is going to have any success today. No relying on McCabe. No relying on Gaborik.
Duballahanisimov- Dubinsky and Callahan are obviously two key players on the Rangers, but they seem to especially pick up their play against Pittsburgh. This year, Dubinsky has 4 assists in 5 games against Pittsburgh while Callahan has 4 goals and 2 assists. The Rangers will need big efforts from both of these guys today. But don’t forget their center Artem Anisimov, who has 3 goals against Pittsburgh this year and has 7 points in his last 6 games.
Kris Letang- The achilles heel on defense for the Rangers has been letting the opposition’s defensemen have time to make decisions and wind up. We saw Subban and Wisniewski make the Rangers pay two nights ago. Kris Letang has been one of the best defensemen in the NHL this year and has 8 goals and 36 assists. He’s one of the last guys the Rangers can afford to give time and space to. Especially because there’s not as much concern up front with Crosby and Malkin missing, the Rangers have no excuse not to pressure the points and specifically Letang.
Game is on NBC at 12:30, which means we have the pleasure of listening to Doc Emerick talk about waffleboards and screech every single time there’s a scoring chance. Also, expect no less than 30 minutes of discussion about Sidney Crosby’s concussion. Avery’s a healthy scratch again, but I’m sure Mike Milbury will find time to complain about him.