NEW YORK, NY -- For years, it was Stanley Cup or bust for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Rangers were allowed to skate through the process. With the teams meeting in the playoffs once again, for the third-straight year, all expectations are on the Rangers and the team with two of the best players in the world gets to slide a little under the radar.
Last year was the same way; but this time, expect a different result.
The ides of April signal the beginnings of playoff hockey but also the traditional playoff narratives that surround the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Henrik Lundqvist will leave his mortal form, entering into some superhuman state and fans will still blame him when the team loses a 1-0 game in which Lundqvist makes 53 saves; Rick Nash will fail to score on the first shift, thus rightfully labeling him unclutch and a bonafide loser; Sidney Crosby will enter into the final stage of his season-long metamorphosis into a Disney villain and everyone will suddenly remember just how good Evgeni Malkin can be.
The Penguins are a nightmare matchup for the Rangers and are going to beat them with the very formula that made the Rangers so successful for the past couple of years: speed kills.
That speed should lead to a distinct possession advantage for the Penguins. According to Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan, a key to beating the Rangers is protecting the puck and speed should certainly help in that respect.
“The Rangers are a very good team,” Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “They’re balanced, they’re strong defensively. They have a good counterattack game. I think it’s very important that we manage the puck appropriately and you don't give them the opportunity to counter attack on you when you’re vulnerable.”
One of the wildcard factors for the Penguins is Kris Letang, who is a likely Norris Trophy finalist and would probably have been the frontrunner for the award if he played the whole season under Mike Sullivan.
“In my mind, he’s had one of those seasons that would put him with the elite defensemen in the League,” Rangers Head Coach Alain Vigneault told reporters, as quoted by Blueshirts United. “Not only do you see the great offensive potential in jumping up in the rush and getting that shot through, but he also defends real well. Can’t intimidate a guy like him, he just plays and plays hard.”
Forwards for the Penguins are going to rightfully give the Rangers fits, especially the depth of their top-six. With Ryan McDonagh out, for at least the first game and likely beyond, there’s nobody on the New York Rangers that can match either the Sidney Crosby line or the Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin pair, no matter what numbered jersey is skating alongside them.
There’s a false narrative that Dan Girardi has been able to shut down Crosby, the defenseman he’s played the fourth most minutes against in his career. The numbers are brutal. When Girardi is on the ice against Crosby, Girardi’s goals against per 60 minutes is 3.90, while the team’s goals for is 1.14 per 60, according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. That means the Penguins are scoring nearly 80 percent of the goals when the two are on the ice together.
Marc Staal’s goals against per 60 minutes number against Crosby is even worse, jumping to 4.17, although the goals for number is 2.60 per 60 minutes, so at least the percentage, while still low, is more promising.
These two paired together against Crosby spells doom for the Rangers. One semi-promising thing to note -- although the quality of Kessel’s team comes into play here -- is that the Rangers score 80 percent of the goals when Staal is on the ice against Kessel and 46.2 when Girardi is on the ice against Kessel. In both cases, they’ve been on the ice against Kessel for about half as long as they have against Crosby.
There aren’t many better options against Crosby, although Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein would likely be the bet. That takes them out of favorable offensive matchups though, so it puts Vigneault in a tough spot.
“Pittsburgh is more than one player,” the coach added. “They’ve got a quite a team there there’s no lucky thing that since Christmas they’ve been pretty much the best team in the league.”
The formula is really not all that different from the last two, quite successful runs the New York Rangers went on. Henrik Lundqvist, Henrik Lundqvist and Henrik Lundqvist.
“I think that the focus needs to be really good on all the details for my game,” Lundqvist told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “For our team: puck possession. They’re fast, they’re good. We know we can beat them, it’s going to be a very tough and challenging series.”
Even on their march to the Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers weren’t a world-beating possession team. They clamped down, tightened up, were afraid of failing and relied on Lundqvist’s stellar postseason play. In 2014, their even-strength shot attempts percentage, per War on Ice, was 49.4 and in 2015 it was 47.9. Heading into the postseason, they’re at 47.4, which is lower admittedly, but still under 50 percent, which means they’ve lost the edge each of the past two postseasons as well.
Now the competition will be routinely tougher, so it’s an arduous task to replicate what’s been accomplished over the past six months, but relying on Lundqvist will be key.
The Rangers are also flush with offensive talent. Although none exactly scream top player, they are arguably a deeper forward group than Pittsburgh -- which lends me to believe that defense is a bigger driver of possession in the system they play.
Any number of the talented Rangers forwards going on a shooting percentage run -- if it’s going to be anyone, please let it be Nash so we won’t have to hear about how “un-clutch” he is all offseason -- they stand a real shot at making a run.
For the Rangers, it’s as simple as relying on percentages and sticking to their game, while allowing Lundqvist to show why he’s a generational talent. For Pittsburgh, it’s more about utilizing speed -- and that killer flip play the Rangers made famous with Hagelin -- to get around the slow-footed New York Rangers defense.
Patrick Kearns is a Columnist and the New York Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.