Weighed down by a mess of injuries along their blue line, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were eliminated by the New York Rangers a year ago, sagged down the stretch and are limping into the Stanley Cup playoffs in a wild card spot. The Rangers meanwhile won the Presidents’ Trophy despite injuries to key contributors like Derek Stepan and Henrik Lundqvist, and have been as resilient and polished as anyone in the league all year.
Who will win when they face-off this week in an all-Metropolitan division first-round Stanley Cup playoff series over the next two weeks?
The Penguins and the Rangers are divisional rivals, so they played each other four times this season – mostly earlier in the year. Indeed the two clubs haven’t squared off against one another since mid-January, so there’s been some time for any heated familiarity to fade.
The season series was lopsided, with the Rangers winning three of the four games in regulation or overtime, and only dropping a single point in the four contests (and in a shootout no less). New York’s two-way game, which was a major reason they had the best record in hockey, found a great deal of success against Pittsburgh’s ace offensive centremen Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the regular season – as PIttsburgh’s two superstar pivots combined for three goals and a single assist in eight combined games.
Rick Nash meanwhile scored four goals and added two assists in four games, to thoroughly torch the Penguins and outscore his superstar counterparts.
By the underlying numbers the Penguins out-attempted the Rangers by a wide margin at even strength in the season series, but that’s what we’d expect of a team that spends four games trying desperately to claw back from an early deficit.
Overall the Rangers’ combination of elite goaltending, and size and speed upfront has proven difficult for the Penguins to contain this year. They’ll have to do better in the first round, lest this become a rather brief series.
Both the Penguins and the Rangers are elite penalty killing teams, with the Penguins having a slight edge in overall kill rate and the Rangers having a massive edge in terms of underlying results.
For several years now the Penguins have maintained a solid kill rate, but have struggled to prevent shots against when shorthanded. There’s probably something going on there systems wise, though part of the answer could also be Marc-Andre Fleury – a goaltender with one of the oddest statistical profiles in the sport.
The Rangers were the league’s single best shot suppression club in 4-on-5 situations this campaign, and they’ll need to be stingy – not to mention disciplined – because the Penguins power play is a versatile orchestra of offensive potency.
Pittsburgh only narrowly finished in the top-10 in terms of their power play conversion rate, but they were a top-three NHL team by shot generation. Just looking at their personnel (even without the injured Kris Letang) – Malkin and Crosby, Patric Hornqvist at the net front, Chris Kunitz and hopefully Derick Pouliot is an extraordinarily talented group.
Meanwhile the Rangers’ power play was as popgun as we now expect it to be, after years and year of futility. Though the club generates shots at a decent enough clip, they’ve been a steadily below average power play team for much of the past half decade.
You can probably give Pittsburgh a slight edge in special teams, though with a qualifier. Though the Penguins have the better power play, they did surrender 10 goals against in 5-on-4 situations this season – the second most in the league behind only the Buffalo Sabres. The Rangers meanwhile were tied with the Winnipeg Jets with nine goals for in 4-on-5 situations, and are always a threat to score against the grain when down a man.
Whether Pittsburgh’s power play can avoid the big mistake and make the Rangers pay could play a massive role in deciding which club advances to the second round.
The Penguins are going to be a popular upset pick, and their edge by the underlying numbers at 5-on-5 are a major reason why.
For all the criticism thrown of late at the Penguins core and at head coach Mike Johnston, the Penguins were a top-three NHL team by score adjusted Corsi For percentage this season. Since adding Daniel Winnik, Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy at the deadline, the Penguins have been controlling nearly 55 percent of score adjusted shot attempts at 5-on-5.
Oddly enough the Penguins’ superior shot based differentials aren’t being driven by offensive output – the Rangers and the Penguins generate looks at roughly the same rate. Instead they’re being driven by the club’s defensive play.
In fact, contrary to what one might expect from Johnston’s freewheeling system, the Penguins are a top-10 shot suppression team in 5-on-5 situations.
In the matchup game Evgeni Malkin successfully gutted some of New York’s depth players in the season series, while Crosby owned Stepan. These are tiny samples and as we mentioned, the Penguins’ superstar pivots couldn’t get it done against New York in the season series. It’s still worth noting that by the head-to-head numbers, the Penguins look to have a slight matchup advantage.
Where the Rangers have their major 5-on-5 advantage is along the blue line though. The Penguins could be without a handful of key back-end contributors, with Christian Ehrhoff potentially joining Olli Maatta and Letang on the shelf. Meanwhile the Rangers’ back-end is one of the league’s deepest, and has a very good top end with Ryan McDonagh qualifying as easily the best defender in this series. Maybe Crosby and Malkin can shred New York’s forwards like they did in the regular season series, but producing while being watched by McDonagh will be their major challenge.
Lundqvist versus Fleury should be a mismatch in the Rangers’ favour, right?
It’s a seven game series so who knows, but yeah, probably.
Fleury is an average NHL starter, and most of his value is derived from his ability to be average and durable year after year. There’s a lot of value in that, he’s worth every penny of his controversial contract extension in my view, but he’s definitely not Lundqvist.
With the exception of maybe Tuukka Rask, Lundqvist is the best and most consistent goaltender in hockey. Elite year after year, Lundqvist is the sort of player capable of dragging an iffy team to the playoffs every season. He’s quantitatively and qualitatively a superior puck stopper to Fleury.
That means next to nothing in a seven game series though. The sample is too small for us to say with any confidence that Lundqvist’s quality will show up in this series, and anyway, Fleury also was pretty stellar this season.
If you had to give an edge to one team’s goaltender ahead of the series though, ti would have to be New York.
A lot of hockey analytics supporters will be picking against the Presidents’ Trophy winners this spring, but I think the Rangers are just a bad matchup for the Penguins – especially a Penguins team with a depleted blueline.
Personally I think the Rangers’ team wide professional-level polish – whether it’s their layered defence, or the way their forwards back-check, or whatever it is that they’re running in terms of set plays off of draws that makes them so potent in the seconds following offensive zone draws and so responsible in the seconds after defensive zone draws – is unmatched in the league. It’ll show up in this series.
Add in New York’s speed and size in the neutral zone, which will absolutely trouble PIttsburgh’s patchwork young blue line and their superior goaltending, and I think you’ve got the recipe for the Rangers to win this series in six games.