Remember when Pittsburgh was looking like they might miss the playoffs? Those days are long gone, and the Penguins hit the ground running after a midseason coaching change as one of the league’s hottest teams heading into their first-round matchup with the New York Rangers.
Phil Kessel never scored the 50+ goals some thought he might (he scored 26), but a second-half “rebound” from Sidney Crosby saw him sit third in league scoring and lead a strong playoff push. The team finished with 104 points, good enough for second in the Metropolitan Division. Besides Crosby and Kessel, Evgeni Malkin (when healthy) and Patric Hornqvist added 27 and 22 goals each. The Penguins’ 241 goals ranked third in the league.
The Rangers, on the other hand, boasted five 20-goal scorers (Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, JT Miller, Chris Kreider, and Derek Stepan) in one of the more well-balanced attacks in the league, which ranked seventh in total goals. The team had its own surprises throughout the year, as likely the player with the most offensive talent on their team, Rick Nash, picked up just 36 points in 60 games, after potting 42 goals in 79 games the year before. The Rangers picked up 101 points.
Both teams were full of shocks this year, but once the season came to an end, neither team could be too disappointed with their placing in the standings. All in all, the teams come in fairly evenly matched up in their performances this year over 82 games, in what has all the makings of a classic first-round series.
As you’ll recall, these teams faced each other in each of the past two playoffs, with the Rangers coming out on top both times in last year’s first round (4-1) and in the conference semifinals in 2014 (4-3.)
The Rangers and the Penguins matched up four times throughout the regular season.
The Penguins came out on top three of those four times. Had the results been slightly different, we could’ve seen an identical series matchup with a shift in home-ice advantage.
Because of some glitch in the NHL schedule matrix, the two teams didn’t play each other once until February, where the Rangers picked up a 3-0 win on the tenth of that month. The Penguins then won three straight in a little over three weeks in March over New York (two in regulation and once in overtime, by a combined score of 12-6.)
On paper (or in a video game), Pittsburgh might have the scariest power play in the league. Loaded with weapons, Pittsburgh’s personnel of snipers, playmakers, and puck moving D-Men should be giving teams nightmares when they’re gifted an extra man on the ice. In actuality, they converted 18.4 % of their chances, good enough for 17th in the NHL, while their 48 extra-strength goals rank 15th in the league.
The Rangers fare very similarly on the power play to the Penguins, converting at an 18.6% rate, ranked 15th in the league, though they actually scored six less times than Pittsburgh did, with 42 power play goals.
The penalty kill separated these two teams, however. New York fell victim to 53 shorthanded goals, while Pittsburgh gave up just 40. Pittsburgh had the league’s fifth-best penalty kill at 84.4%, while the Rangers sat at 78.2%, sliding in at 26th in the league.
The Penguins are, year after year, scary to face at 5 on 5. Maybe not all four lines, but when you’re playing #87 for 20+ minutes a night, it causes some issues. Sidney Crosby is still Sidney Crosby, though his PIC in Evgeni Malkin may not be back to appear in this series, having been out for over a month. He could return later in the series, but is still listed as day-to-day. Don’t sleep on 35+ players Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, who put up 15 and 13 goals at even strength respectively. Kris Letang’s 26 even strength assists add some solid contributions from the back end. Olli Maatta has missed the last nine games, but has been a joy to watch when healthy.
J.T. Miller leads the charge in his first season of NHL relevance to non-Rangers fans, being surprisingly first on the team with 20 even strength goals. Brassard, Zuccarello and Kreider provide solid scoring as well, in what is a team that’s been without an offensive superstar this season. Perhaps this is the series Eric Staal regains young Eric Staal form and has a “breakout” series? Maybe Rick Nash does Rick Nash things and scores six goals in six games, or maybe he’ll fall victim to the curse of leading the league in shots but being unable to muster any sort of actual production. Both former stars are big question marks for the series, and their play could be X-factors.
Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are both out to start the series, which could prove problematic, though seeing as Girardi’s puck possession impacts sit near the bottom of the league, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise. The move leaves Kevin Klein as the team’s average TOI leader amongst D-men, though Keith Yandle makes the likely case as the team’s true #1 for now.
Oh, and there’s basically nothing that separates these teams at even strength over the course of the 82 game season, either.
Pittsburgh scored 160 5-on-5 goals, New York scored 163. Pittsburgh surrendered 130 goals against at 5-on-5, New York gave up 129.
Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs is like a box of chocolates. Having had a real up-and-down career, The Flower has been both hero and GOAT in his time in the Penguins uniform. For all the talk, Fleury’s remained the #1 guy in Pittsburgh, though the playoffs sometimes tell a different story as MAF’s numbers defy explanation as he’s been anything but consistent.
Fleury could be ready for Game 1, but will likely be announced later today or tomorrow.
Matt Murray has been very solid this year with a .930 save percentage and a 9-2 record, albeit in a limited 13 games. However, he’s also potentially unable to play after suffering an injury on Saturday.
Looking for a hero story? If both are injured, Jeff Zatkoff slots in. Having never started an NHL playoff game before, it would be headline material if he can even make the Penguins competitive in this series. His career numbers aren’t bad at all, but his resume also doesn’t scream at you as the guy you want leading your playoff push.
Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the best, if not the best, playoff goalie over the past ten or so years, but his consistency has yet to earn him a Stanley Cup ring, much to the chagrin of almost anyone in the league. His .923 playoff save percentage in 98 career starts is almost god-like, and it’s a shame a goaltender of his caliber and performance has not been able to win it all. Expect a game or two to be stolen by Lundqvist, and if the series does go the distance, this is the only guy ever to gut out six consecutive Game 7 wins.
Antti Raanta provides a suitable, consistent backup option, but hasn’t played a playoff game since 2012, with Assat Pori of SM-liiga
|Wednesday April 13th||NY Rangers @ Pittsburgh||8:00 PM EST|
|Saturday April 16th||NY Rangers @ Pittsburgh||3:00 PM EST|
|Tuesday April 19th||Pittsburgh @ NY Rangers||7:00 PM EST|
|Thursday April 21st||Pittsburgh @ NY Rangers||TBD|
|Saturday April 23rd||NY Rangers @ Pittsburgh||TBD|
|Monday April 25th||Pittsburgh @ NY Rangers||TBD|
|Wednesday April 27th||NY Rangers @ Pittsburgh||TBD|
Both of these teams could’ve had more playoff success than they’ve had in the past, but one of them will have to sit through another offseason of second-guessing starting in about two weeks. It’s a shame this series has to happen so soon as it could easily be a Conference Finals pairing, but there’s no point talking hypotheticals anymore. Two pretty darn good teams will faceoff for what could be a hell of a series.
Everything considered, the Penguins just seem like they’ve figured things out this year after a bumpy start. Since this is NHLNumbers after all and not NHLEyeTest, the best metric we’ve found to predict playoff series- Score-adjusted Fenwick – (which is accurate about 73% of the time, according to our own Jonathan Willis) favours Pittsburgh, by a 53.1-48.5 score.
I take the Penguins in 6. Third time’s a charm, and they’ll finally get over that hump.
Note: If the series goes seven, all bets are off against Lundqvist.