After seven months of 82-game regular season hockey, it's time for the Rangers to begin yet another two month journey to try and capture the biggest prize in hockey (Non Connor McDavid division). The journey begins on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden against the 2nd Wild Card winner Pittsburgh Penguins and boy howdy is it a doozy of a match up.
The New York Rangers are coming off of their best season in franchise history. A record 113 points, 53 wins, 28 road wins, and a Presidents' Trophy to boot. However, there is a bit of an undercurrent of trouble with this team that has a lot of people nay-saying their chances in the playoffs. The Rangers have been riding a pretty above average shooting percentage through the season (finishing at 9.4%) while putting up some pretty substandard possession numbers (51% on the season but slightly under 45% since the trade deadline, we'll get more into this later).
The Pittsburgh Penguins are not coming into the playoffs as hot as the Rangers are; falling out of the running to the Metropolitan Division and having to hold off a surging Ottawa Senators and a free falling Bruins squad just to cling to the 2nd wild card spot, you could argue that the Penguins are just lucky to be playing hockey this week. The biggest storyline with the Penguins is that they are missing their top three defensemen in Kris Letang (who will miss the entirety of the playoffs), Olli Maata (who will also miss the entirety of the playoffs), and Christian Ehrhoff (who could play later in this series). This has forced coach Mike Johnston to play with only 5 defensemen in Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole and, Taylor Chorney.
By the numbers
As I mentioned before, the Rangers have ridden a pretty high shooting percentage all year while not playing a great possession game and this is leading to a lot of pundits to write the Rangers off. However, there are some pretty valid arguments against the Rangers being a "PDO (high luck)" team. Dave Shapiro over at Blue Seat Blogs does a good job of breaking down the Rangers rush chances that somewhat explains the Rangers wonky numbers and George Ays put together a nice little comparison of other recent "PDO" teams and the Rangers on twitter.
The Penguins had been a great possession team (putting up close to 56% possession numbers) and are probably the better possession team in this series while they have been shooing at 8.5%. These numbers, however, are mostly bolstered by having one of the best puck moving defensemen in Letang playing with two of the best players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It can't be understated how big his loss will be to the Penguins.
The Eye Test
Everyone and their mother knows the Rangers break out scheme; get puck to the blue line and hit the streaking winger through the neutral zone to stretch the defense.
It's simple, it's effective, and it makes the Rangers a threat every time they come down the ice.
The Penguins' breakout is just as simple. Carry the puck to the blue line, chip it a bit to Crosby or Malkin and let them use their unreal hockey I.Q. to wreak havoc against opposing defensemen.
A simple chip between the two Blue Jackets forecheckers allows Crosby more than enough room to accelerate into the neutral zone while David Perron offers support along the boards
So with Sid coming through the red line, the Jackets are caught watching him and over committing while Patric Hornqvist and Perron streak into the offensive zone allowing Crosby options.
One place the Rangers need to make sure they're taking advantage of the Penguins is Pittsburgh's bottom six. Where the Rangers keep to their breakout scheme throughout their top three lines, the Penguins like to employ a chip and chase scheme with their bottom six and that is where Pittsburgh can get beat. Beating their forwards to the puck and getting those quick outlets can expose the Penguins defense.
Three ways the Rangers win the series
1) They use the home ice advantage to overpower a thin bottom six and defense corps by imposing their speed early and often
2) Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the best goaltenders in the game and out duels Marc-Andre Fleury
3) They minimize the mistakes. I don't trust the Rangers defense but it's still six mostly healthy defensemen to the Penguins 5. If they can minimize the mistakes in their own end and play their optimal 4th line in a defensive role they should be fine
Three ways the Penguins win the series
1) Crosby and Malkin run the show and attack the Rangers' defense. They're two of the best in the world at what they do and no matter the situation they will always be a tough assignment. The Rangers are going to have to work very hard to shut these two down
2) The Penguins can establish the neutral zone as their own. If the Rangers can't get through the neutral zone in one pass then the offense dries up.
3) Marc-Andre Fleury becomes otherworldly and locks down the brain farts.
A better series than many are expecting but Pittsburgh won't be able to overcome their injuries on the back end as the Rangers speed wears down the Penguins in six games.