Somehow, despite themselves, the Pittsburgh Penguins have actually made the playoffs. Limping through the final games, at times with only five defensemen for more than a few games, the Penguins are set to take on the division rival New York Rangers with Game One set for Thursday. Only a year has passed from the last time these two met in the playoffs, with the then favorite Penguins blowing a 3-1 series lead and the Rangers winning and eventually going on to lose in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Los Angeles.
When nothing is going well for a team, nothing really goes well. Players start gripping their sticks too tightly, posts are hit more often than the back of the net, penalties seem to follow around the team like a bad cold, and injuries seem inevitable. I don ?t think you would find many fans in Pittsburgh that believe that the above doesn ?t apply to the Penguins over the last few weeks of the season.
Let ?s take a look at what ?s in store for this series for the struggling Penguins against the President ?s Trophy-winning New York Rangers:
|Thursday, April 16||7 p.m.||Madison Square Garden||NBCSN|
|Saturday, April 18||8 p.m.||Madison Square Garden||NBC|
|Monday, April 20||7 p.m.||Consol Energy Center||NBCSN|
|Wednesday, April 22||7 p.m.||Consol Energy Center||NBCSN|
|*Friday, April 24||TBD||Madison Square Garden||TBD|
|*Sunday, April 26||TBD||Consol Energy Center||TBD|
|*Tuesday, April 28||TBD||Madison Square Garden||TBD|
Good ? In the five series played between the Penguins and the Rangers in the post-season, the Penguins have won four out of the five, including a series win in 2008 to send the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Flyers on a Marian Hossa overtime goal.
Bad ? The most recent series against the Rangers was a 4-3 series win by the Rangers last year in a tightly contested 7 game series that ultimately cost Head Coach Dan Byslma and General Manager Ray Shero their jobs with the organization.
Ugly ? Even though the Penguins shutout the Rangers twice in their first three games and were up with a 3-1 series lead by Game Four, the Rangers came back to win the series and eventually found their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. In the final three games of the series, the Penguins were outscored by a total of 10-3 by the Rangers after outscoring the Rangers 11-5 in the first four games of the series. To Penguins fans, that will sound pretty familiar to this season, as both throughout the season and within games, the Penguins have gotten ahead early with severely diminishing returns later on.
Good ? Sidney Crosby finished 2nd in the league in points with 84 after missing five games, Malkin managed to finish in the top-20, even with missing 13 games, Patric Hornqvist, one of the pieces acquired in the hotly debated James Neal trade played a significant role in the offense all season totalling 25 goals through 64 games. The Penguins also were assisted early on in the season by the strong play of Chris Kunitz and Blake Comeau. GM Jim Rutherford added to the Penguins depth by acquiring David Perron mid-season and Daniel Winnik and Maxim Lapierre close to the deadline.
Bad ? The Penguins have stopped scoring over the past few months, dropping them to 19th overall in the league in goals per game. At the same time, the Rangers can score in bunches, as they currently sit at 3rd overall in goals per game. Led by Rick Nash with 42 goals, third in the league to only the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and the Lightning ?s Steven Stamkos, the Rangers have seen an offensive revolution this year, often putting other teams on their heels.
Ugly ? Tanner Glass. Somehow Tanner Glass is set to play in another Penguins-Rangers playoff series. At least this time he won ?t be on the Penguins ? roster, right?
Good ? Usually in a section that talks about the Penguins’ defense, it would be difficult to not mention Kris Letang or Olli Maatta, but more on that later. The best news for the Penguins (and probably Paul Martin more than anyone else) is that the Penguins will actually be able to dress a full defense corps for the playoffs thanks to the relinquishing of the salary cap for the postseason. Having played 4 of their last 7 games with only five defensemen, the remaining Penguins defense has seen astronomical ice-time averages and additional blame for the Penguins late-season woes.
Bad ? Somehow at this year ?s trade deadline, an already stacked Rangers’ defense got even better with the acquisition of Keith Yandle. Meaning that the Rangers, depending on the health of Kevin Klein, will be trotting out a defense corps of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle, Marc Staal, and Kevin Klein. With the addition of Yandle, the Rangers went from having a solid defense to having arguably the best in the league and they will need it keep Crosby and Malkin contained.
Ugly ? Depending on the health of Derrick Pouliot and Christian Ehrhoff, the Penguins could enter Thursday with a lineup of Paul Martin, Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole, Rob Scuderi, and two of Taylor Chorney, Scott Harrington, or Brian Dumoulin. In other words, while the Rangers will be sending out one of the best groups of defensemen in the league, the Penguins could be stuck sending out a 3rd-pairing with absolutely no experience playing in the NHL playoffs. For the Penguins that could mean a lot of rookie mistakes, misuse of veterans in high-minute roles, and nonexistent support for the struggling power-play.
Good ? Don ?t tell anyone, but Fleury is having a career regular season. Ten shutouts were roughly 10 more shutouts than many Penguins expected from the battered goaltender. Add into that a career-high save percentage of .920 and it ?s really hard to fault Fleury for the Penguins woes in the last few months of the regular season.
Bad ? Apparently, Henrik Lundqvist is still pretty good at goaltending and if for whatever reason he ?s not available, his back-up, Cam Talbot, stepped in while he was injured and won 16 out of his 23 starts. The Penguins have had trouble scoring for the past few months of the season and facing Lundqvist will not give them many opportunities to take advantage of poor goaltending.
Ugly ? After only giving up five goals in the first four games of the series last year against the Rangers, Fleury gave up 9 goals in the last three games. If last postseason ?s performance wasn ?t bad enough, this year in four starts against the Rangers, Fleury is 1-2-1 with 15 goals against, a save percentage of .866 and a goals against average of 4.21.
Good ? Despite their late season struggles, the Penguin powerplay ended up in the top-10 of the league and the Rangers clocked in at 21st in the league. On the other side of the puck the Penguins’ penalty kill was 3rd in the league, which should stack up well against the Rangers powerplay.
Bad ? The Rangers powerplay may not be great relatively speaking, but with the talent they have offensively, they may be able to click at any point.
Ugly ? Last week, I wrote about the fixes that the Penguins should make to the powerplay. The Penguins’ powerplay has been abysmal over the past few months and will likely not be better anytime soon with the absence of Kris Letang.
Good ? The Penguins win in 7. It seems unlikely with the injuries and the exhaustion that most of the team will be facing heading into Game One. Winning at all at this point would be a significant achievement.
Bad ? Rangers win in 5 or 6 or 7. Yes, a Rangers win would be bad, but would at least be expected. With the adversity the Penguins have faced this year from mumps to bumps, no one would be that surprised.
Ugly ? Rangers win in 4 and the Penguins score less than 2 goals all series. Flashbacks to the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals against the Bruins, where the Penguins were consistently overmatched, seem all the more likely in the lead-up to Thursday ?s game.