Round Two of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins gets underway tonight, 7:00 pm ET at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA. This will be the first head to head playoff match-up since the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals. During the regular season, the teams met four times, splitting the series 2-1-1, with each team winning one game in the other’s building.
Pittsburgh is loaded with talent and playing ability. Heading into the series against the Rangers, their most offensive forward is Evgeni Malkin. In round one against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he was kept relatively quiet until Game six. The 6’3 giant awoke from his slumber. He had a power play and game winning goals en route to a hat trick. He finished the series with three goals and seven points. Followed behind him is Sidney Crosby. Easily one of the NHL’s premier superstars and perhaps the face of the league, Crosby has six points; all of them being assists. He will be looking to get in the goal column this series, be sure of that. However, the Penguins don’t have to depend on Crosby or Malkin for goals. The scoring is spread throughout their lineup, which is attributed to their depth. It doesn’t matter what combination of players are on the ice, every player is a threat. They can come in waves and not let up. Head coach Dan Bylsma has the luxury to pick and choose which players he wants to field, at any given time. Chris Kunitz, Jussi Jokinen, Lee Stempniak, James Neal are just some of the options at his disposal. However, they are not just scoring forwards. They can bring a “nastiness” to their game and strike fear into the hearts of their opponents.
On New York’s side, the team’s elder statesmen are leading the charge. The team’s leading
offensive forward is Martin St. Louis. Through the Rangers’ first round series with the Philadelphia Flyers, he contributed two goals and six points. He is also the team’s leader in assists with four. His play making ability and postseason experience, which includes a Stanley Cup, makes him standout as a leader, and favorite, among Rangers fans. Followed right behind him is the alternate captain Brad Richards. Through seven playoff games this season, he is tied with St. Louis for the team lead in offensive production. His play is making up for last year’s train wreck of a post season, where he was virtually non-existent. He is making Rangers’ fans forget the past and is proving why he should be in the lineup each and every night. Oh, he also provides 100 games worth of playoff experience, including a Stanley Cup with St. Louis. In my opinion, it seems that Richards is finally embracing his leadership role and becoming a voice for the team. Just as the Penguins have depth, the Rangers do too. Scoring threats such as, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Carl Hagelin are capable of stepping into the role of the hero. What differentiates the two teams from one another is the Rangers fourth line. These players will be the “X Factor” in the series. Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and Derek Dorsett have been the line that stood out as the embodiment of the Rangers culture. Relentless and giving their all has given head coach Alain Vigneault confidence in putting them on the ice.
Heading into the series, Pittsburgh’s defense leads the team in scoring. Their top two scorers are defensemen. Paul Martin leads the team with eight points; all assists. He was a +7 in goal differential against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tied with Martin in points is Matt Niskanen. Through six games in the first round, he has two goals and six assists. Not to be forgotten is the Penguins top defenseman, Kris Letang. Despite his health condition, which saw him miss the last 20+ games of the season for the Penguins, he was able to come back for the playoffs. His 23:00 minutes of ice-time is second on the team behind Martin with 27:19 minutes. Veterans such as Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi as well as rookie, Olli Maatta, round out the Penguins defense corps.
For New York, the defense is led by Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. In the first round series with the Philadelphia Flyers, McDonagh looked tentative at the start. This may have been due to his shoulder injury, suffered late in the season against the Vancouver Canucks. However, as the series progressed, he seemed to be less hesitant and became aggressive in the offensive zone. He leads the team in ice time with an average 25:04 per game. His defense partner, Girardi, leads all Ranger defensemen with one goal and three points. He is second in ice time on the team with 22:12 on average. As we saw last series, the top pair was on the ice for many of the Flyer goals, especially in Game six. They will need to be better defensively and become the “shutdown defensemen” as they are known. When the top pair rests, the second defensive pair of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman are capable of stepping in solidly. Staal is second in scoring among defensemen with one goal and two points. He has the team’s best differential rating of +6. Stralman has two assists and a +3 rating. But it was his Game seven performance that has gained him attention. During a sequence in the third period, he was seen blocking consecutive shots preventing the Flyers getting shots through. The third pair of John Moore and Kevin Klein round out the defense corps for the Rangers. However, the team has an advantage in their defensive depth. Raphael Diaz is the seventh defenseman and is able to step in at anytime when called upon.
Marc-Andre Fleury is Pittsburgh’s man in the net. In the first round against the Blue Jackets, he went 4-2 with a 2.81 goals against average. Fleury’s save percentage was .908. Despite his numbers in the series, he appeared to be mentally timid. In Pittsburgh’s last game, Fleury gave up three goals in the third period. This was after the Penguins had a commanding 4-0 lead with 9:39 left. Once the first goal went in, it started a chain reaction with the Penguins almost losing the game. With Fleury, you are not quite sure what you are going to get, night in and night out. When he is on, he is on. But if you get him off his game, he begins to lose confidence. The Rangers will need to capitalize on this and wreak havoc in Fleury’s mental game.
Just as the Penguin’s have “Flower Power”, the Rangers have the King. Henrik Lundqvist has been the face of the franchise in New York for sometime now. In the first round series with the Flyers, Lundqvist was not always at his best. But, he was good enough to help the team win a hard-fought series and advance to the second round. He brings a 4-3 record and a .919 save percentage against the Penguins. His 2.11 goals against average ranks him in the top five of playoff goalies this season. Unlike Fleury, Lundqvist thrives off his mental toughness. He believes he will stop every puck faced. If he even gives up one goal, he will show his frustration and will make sure not to be beaten again. In Game six of the Flyers series, we did not see his best. He faced 23 shots, giving up four goals in the game. He was pulled in the 3rd period to regroup. The next night, Lundqvist recovered by giving up one goal on 27 shots. The point is, he is able to forget what happened in the past, nothing he can do about it. But what he can control is the present. It is this mentality that gives him the edge of Fleury.
Through the first round of the playoffs, Pittsburgh’s power play is 6 for 29, which is 20.7%. During their man-advantage opportunities, they have 41 shots on goal. If you have seen their power play, it is crisp, precise, with quick puck movements. There is no slowing down when they are given power play opportunities, which is ranked eighth among this season’s playoff teams. When on the penalty kill, the team is at 74.1%. The Penguins have given up seven power play goals in 27 times shorthanded. The team is ranked 13th for the playoffs.
For New York, well, let’s just say the power play has not been kind. The team has improved on their quick puck movement, making it harder for the goalies to track. However, their stumbling block has been the inability to setup in the offensive zone, put shots on goal, and sustain offensive pressure. Against the Flyers, the Rangers were 3 for 29 with the man advantage. That’s a 10.3% conversion rate. Early in the series, the team was 3 for 8, which was 37.5%. However, the team failed miserably going 0 for 21 on the power play. On the penalty kill, the Rangers gave up six power play goals in 21 opportunities short handed. That’s 71.4%. The team is ranked near the bottom of this year’s playoff teams. They will need to improve these areas and return to their regular season form, where they ranked 15th on the power play and third on the penalty kill.
The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win the series. Pittsburgh is a faster puck moving team than the Flyers. It will not be a “black and blue” series, as we saw with Philadelphia. Pittsburgh is more of an offensive minded, up tempo team. The Rangers will need to cut down on their turnovers, make crisp passes, stay out of the penalty box, and match their opponent’s energy. The defense will need to keep up with the Penguins’ forwards and not let them get to Lundqvist. I believe the team has the personnel to compete with Pittsburgh and will win the series. Rangers in seven games.