Here once again is the definitive series preview, brought to you by a joint effort of the creators of this blog. The Rangers posted a 5-3 record against the Penguins this season. Can Henrik Lundqvist keep Sid the Kid and his cronies from punching the Rangers out of the playoffs? The only way to find out is to keep reading.
It’s on the long side, so click the “more” link below to continue reading.
The Penguins have a potent offense but it is comprised mostly of young stars. Crosby, Hossa, Malkin, Sykora, Malone… oh my. Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers defense will certainly have their hands full.
But the Rangers are no slouches on the offensive end either, and they certainly have more experience. This isn’t the first rodeo for Jagr, Shanahan, Drury, Gomez, or Straka. And while the Rangers young guns don’t generate nearly as much publicity, Dubinsky, Callahan, and Dawes can all put the puck in the net. I think the Rangers forecheck (especially Callahan’s line) has the potential to wreak havoc and really make a difference in the series.
Nearly every expert is marking down the Penguins offense as having the upper hand in this matchup, but I just don’t see it. I mean no disrespect to the Penguins forwards, because they are very skilled and talented, but the Rangers are not the Ottawa Senators. Stats are stats. In 8 head-to-head games this season, the Penguins averaged 20 shots on goal against the Rangers. In those same games, the Rangers averaged 32.5.
For me, the head-to-head results plus the difference in experience gives the edge to the Rangers.
Prior to the trade deadline, the Penguins defense was already solid with Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik, and Kris Letang. But after they picked up Hal Gill, a man Jaromir Jagr has referred to as the “best defenseman in the world,” their defense was taken to another level. Look for the Jagr-Gill matchup to be a significant storyline throughout the series.
The Rangers defense is led by Michal Rozsival and Marc Staal. If there were any questions with Staal’s inexperience, those were put to rest in the first round. But while questions surrounding Staal were answered, other questions about Girardi and Tyutin were raised. They had been very solid all season, and I had written that they were both “very strong positional hockey players that rarely get caught making a mistake.” I stand by that assessment, except that each of them had a few soft moments in Round 1, and the Penguins are certainly more likely to capitalize on mistakes than the Devils. The performance of Girardi and Tyutin might well be the difference in the series. The Rangers need them to be solid. As for the 3rd defensive pairing, let’s just say that Mara and Backman on the ice at the same time scares the crap out of me no matter which line they are out with. And if they are on the ice with the 4th line, I have to leave the room to prevent myself from going into cardiac arrest.
Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist has been awesome lately, but Fleury has been pretty good too. In his last 17 games, during the Penguins charge to the top of the Atlantic Division and during the 4 game sweep of Ottawa, Fleury posted a 14-3 record.
But while Lundqvist has been solid despite many defensive miscues by the Rangers, it is my opinion that Fleury has been on a hot streak thanks in large part to his blueliners.
It is no coincidence that Marc-Andre Fleury’s stats after the trade deadline were significantly better than his early stats. I saw Barry Melrose say on SportsCenter that Fleury is doing a better job directing rebounds since he came back from injury. WRONG! Fleury hasn’t changed his play, but his defense has been doing a much better job clearing those big juicy rebounds out of the slot, and Hal Gill has played a huge role in that.
If the Rangers can put the same kind of traffic in front of Fleury that they put in front of Brodeur, they should be successful.
The Penguins boasted one of the league’s strongest power plays during the regular season, at 20.4%. And during the series against Ottawa, the Penguins scored on the man-advantage at a staggering 26.1% clip.
Meanwhile, the Rangers power play, while anemic during the regular season at 16.5%, has suddenly sprung to life (no doubt thanks in part to the efforts of Mr. Jagr) in the postseason with the Rangers posting a 23.5% scoring rate on the Power Play against the Devils.
The small sample size of the postseason has to be taken with a grain of salt, so the power play advantage goes to the Penguins. But, if Jagr and company continue to play this way, ripping shots on net with traffic in front of the goalie, they will continue to score PP goals.
On the penalty kill, the Rangers would appear to have an advantage, killing penalties 84.6% of the time in the regular season compared to the Penguins 81% rate. But in the playoffs, the Penguins have been superb on the penalty kill. Maybe this was because Ottawa’s power play was in shambles, but it’s hard to ignore a 92.3% penalty killing rate. The Rangers, on the other hand, looked vulnerable against the Devils, allowing a relatively weak power play unit to score against them fairly easily, only killing 79.2% of the power plays in that series.
The Rangers had better stay out of the box. You don’t want to give these talented forwards too many power plays.
It’s going to be interesting to see these two coaches go at it this series. I often say that Rangers coach Tom Renney is playing checkers while everyone else is playing chess, but it seems to work for this team. Look for Michel Therrien to be furiously adjusting the matchups in an attempt to counter the Rangers’ strengths. I expect Hal Gill to stick to Jagr like glue. Renney, on the other hand, refuses to change the way his team plays just to accommodate another team. I like the message this sends to the team. Basically, Renney is saying “we’re good enough to beat any team our way” and “they have to change to our style but we’re not going to change to theirs.” Of course, this could backfire if Renney refuses to make a necessary adjustment, but like I said, it’s worked pretty well so far.
Both coaches have done very good jobs with their teams, and it will be interesting to see how this series plays out. I don’t see either coach having an edge in this matchup.
Some series subplots:
- Staal vs. Staal — Jordan vs. Marc. During the regular season, there was lots of brotherly love going on before and after the games. This time around, they’ve agreed that all of that is on hold until after the series.
- Jarkko Ruutu vs. Sean Avery — Pest against pest. If Sean Avery can continue scoring goals and playing effective hockey, I can overlook the occasional trip to the penalty box. But in a tight series, a few stupid penalties can really shift the momentum. Whoever stays out of the box will be the victor in this battle.
- The draw of Sidney Crosby vs. the TV ratings of New York City — I’ve heard conspiracy theory grumblings that the NHL wants their chosen one Sidney Crosby to advance deep into the playoffs to help the ratings and that the refs will be instructed accordingly. But, in my opinion, as far as the NHL is concerned, any series from here on out is going to be good for TV ratings. Montreal, Philly, New York City, and Sid the Kid. One of these things is not like the other…… Sid might be a nice draw for TV, but New York trumps Pittsburgh in terms of market size. So put those conspiracy theories to bed. No matter what happens for the conference finals, this particular series is a great draw for the NHL. It’s no surprise that NBC will be broadcasting two of the games of this series and Versus will broadcast several others. This is going to be exciting hockey and the TV ratings might be high enough to generate some excitement among the average U.S. sports fan. That alone is good news for the league.
Eric has a good feeling about this matchup (and Henrik Lundqvist). He says Rangers in 5.
Marc thinks the Rangers’ experience will prevail. He says Rangers in 6.