For the first time since 2017, there will be playoff hockey at Madison Square Garden. The New York Rangers capped of a strong 52 win, 110 point regular season on Friday, and now they’re in the process of resting up ahead of an opening round playoff matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While these two teams were neck and neck in the standings with 85 points apiece on the day of the trade deadline, three head-to-head meetings in the following weeks were all won by the Blueshirts. That allowed them to pull away from Pittsburgh and end up with home ice advantage in this series. Although there was always some drama in the race, whether it be the battle for home ice early on or Pittsburgh fighting to stave off the Washington Capitals for the third seed in the Metropolitan Division as the season began to wind down, a Rangers vs Penguins matchup to open the playoffs has been more likely than not since February.
Rangers now odds-on to face Pittsburgh in the first round. pic.twitter.com/E7eUt15dnO— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 28, 2022
This will be the fourth time these teams have clashed since realignment and the division-focused playoff format that came with it. The Rangers clawed back from a 3-1 series deficit to win in seven games in the second round of the 2014 playoffs en route to an Eastern Conference championship. The two teams traded opening round 4-1 victories in the following two seasons, with New York disposing of Pittsburgh in 2015 before being the opponent for the first of what would be nine consecutive playoff series victories for the Penguins as they won back to back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
As for this season, these division rivals didn’t meet until New York’s 52nd game of the campaign on February 26th. A lone power play goal from Evgeni Malkin gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 victory that afternoon at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Following the trade deadline, the two teams met thrice in a two week span. The Rangers put on a show in a dominant 5-1 victory on March 25th at MSG, won a tightly contested 3-2 game in Pittsburgh on March 29th, and shut the Penguins out in New York on April 7th by a score of 3-0. Those games only represent four of the 82 each team played this season. So how’d they fare over the rest of the season?
The Rangers’ struggles at 5-on-5 prior to the trade deadline and the success they’ve had since shoring up their depth issues are no secret. The team was among the dregs of the league in every meaningful shot-based metric and would get bailed out by Igor Shesterkin and stellar special teams on a nightly basis. However, Gerard Gallant’s squad has seen meaningful improvements across the board since adding Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte (who is expected to remain out for this series) and Justin Braun to the roster.
What’s more interesting and less talked about however, is Pittsburgh’s relative struggles since the trade deadline compared to their season long results. The Penguins acquired Rickard Rakell from the Anaheim Ducks to bolster their forward corps and he’s performed well on an individual level with a 4-9-13 stat line and strong shot and scoring chance numbers in 19 games.
Some pundits have downplayed New York’s success after the deadline by citing the lack of quality teams they played aside from the Pittsburgh games. The Blueshirts only played four non-Pittsburgh playoff teams after the deadline (CAR, CAR again, BOS, and WSH) and lost three of those games, with those three losses coming against the two teams squaring off on the other side of the divisional bracket, Carolina and Boston.
The Penguins played eight of their final sixteen post-deadline games against playoff teams aside from the Rangers. They didn’t fare much better, going 3-5 by splitting two games with Boston, losing to Washington, and going 2-3 against Western Conference playoff teams. Saying the Rangers took advantage of a favorable schedule compared to Pittsburgh’s is a fair assessment, but outright dismissing their strong results because of that schedule is probably going too far.
Igor Shesterkin’s historic play this season will gave the Rangers the edge in goal no matter who they play this season, and the numbers bear that out in this series preview. Tristan Jarry started the majority of Pittsburgh’s games this season, and although his numbers are dwarfed by Shesterkin, they’re actually among the league’s better goaltenders, ranking 8th in save percentage and 7th in Goals Saved Above Average.
However, Jarry has been out since April 14th, and has been out on a week-to-week basis since then with a foot injury and is not expected to be ready for Game 1. Enter Casey DeSmith, who ranks a much more pedestrian 17th in save percentage and 23rd in GSAA. GSAA is a volume stat, so there’s something to be said for Jarry being higher in that category, but even on a per game basis it’s a sizable drop off from 0.31 GSAA/GP for Jarry to 0.20 for DeSmith.
Mike Sullivan did not have an update on injured forward Jason Zucker.— Seth Rorabaugh (@SethRorabaugh) April 29, 2022
Sullivan indicated injured goaltender Tristan Jarry has been able to begin rehabilitation off the ice for his injured right foot.
New York’s special teams units are slightly stronger than Pittsburgh’s, with Chris Kreider’s 26 power play goals setting a new franchise record. One might chalk that up as another point in New York’s favor, but don’t be so quick to do that. The x-factor that could give Pittsburgh the edge in this department in site of the units themselves is the dramatic difference in penalty differential. Only Colorado had a better penalty differential than Pittsburgh, while the Rangers rank 26th in the league by taking sixteen more penalties than they drew.
Similar to how teams without strong finishing ability can overcome that by shot volume, the Penguins’ special teams outperforming the Rangers’ just by virtue of spending so much more time on the man advantage compared to being shorthanded is well within the realm of possibilities.
One may want to throw up their hands and make some sarcastic comment about the Penguins getting preferential treatment because, well, they’re the Penguins. However, there’s nothing nefarious about the team with three players with 20+ more PIM’s than the other team’s leader in PIM’s ending up in the box more if things fall that way.
A final point to make, one that doesn’t actually have anything to do with what will transpire on the ice, is about the implied odds for the series on Draft Kings. That number of -115/-105 has moved to -110/-110 since the graphic was created, indicating money has been coming in on the Rangers since the line opened. Andrew Copp and Artemiy Panarin are the biggest injury question marks for the Rangers, but they’re both expected back for Game 1. Meanwhile, with the status of Tristan Jarry and Justin Zucker being unknown at the moment (or known by some, hence the line movement towards New York), there’s less certainty surrounding the Penguins as of now.
Overall, this should be a fascinating series between two longtime rivals. The Penguins are looking to make it out of the first round for the first time 2018 and squeeze every last bit of juice out of Crosby, Malkin and Letang that they can. The new look Blueshirts are out to prove that their return to the playoffs wasn’t the one man effort many make it out to be. If they can play Pittsburgh like they did during the regular season meetings, they’ll be in good shape. If they allow Crosby or Malkin to take over the series, it’ll be short one.
Prediction: Rangers Over Penguins in 7 Games
*All Data via Evolving Hockey