We’ve seen both the best and the worst of the New York Rangers in the first three games of their opening-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. There was the awesome start in Game 1, followed by the putrid second period in that same game. There was the great second period in Game 2, somewhat marred by Sidney Crosby skating through just about every Ranger on the ice before scoring late in that frame.
Then there was Saturday’s game in Pittsburgh, which featured an off-his-game Igor Shesterkin, some unfortunate bounces, a dominant second period, an inability to cash in on what’s normally an elite power play, and then a weak goal against that ultimately sealed the Rangers’ fate.
So yes, the series has been a roller coaster, both in terms of the Rangers’ actual performance and the impact it has had on the emotions of their fans. Naturally, that means that there are both positive and negative takeaways to glean in the aftermath of Game 3, which was the most tumultuous game yet in a series that the Rangers trail two games to one, with both losses being absolute gut punches. The Rangers would have it no other way.
Let’s start with the positives, which can be difficult to recognize after another tough loss.
- This team is resilient. They’ve proven it all year, with their 27 comeback wins in the regular season ranking only behind the Florida Panthers, who had 29. Down 4-1 on Saturday after a first period that was both poor in performance and unfortunate in luck, the Rangers could have folded. But they responded with a dominant second period, scoring three times to tie the game, 4-4. They just could not get that last goal in the third period to finish the comeback, but the team’s motto of “No Quit in New York” (however cheesy it might be) seems to ring true for this group. They bounced back with a Game 2 win following an exhausting Game 1 loss. There’s no reason to think they won’t rebound again with a strong performance in Game 4.
- Igor Shesterkin probably won’t be this bad again. (Right? Please? Hopefully?). Some bounces definitely went against him in the first period of Game 3, but Shesterkin looked shaky the entire time. Perhaps it’s fatigue from all the minutes he logged over the first two games, which really comprised almost three full games thanks to the triple-overtime Game 1. Now Shesterkin will have a little more rest after being substituted for Alexandar Georgiev following the first period of Game 3, and will likely come out angry in Game 4, looking to show once again why he’s the best goaltender in the NHL.
- Besides the goaltending, Game 3 was the Rangers’ best game overall. They didn’t come away with the win, but the Rangers seemed to do a better job controlling more of the play and generating a higher share of the scoring chances than they did in Game 1 or Game 2. Metrics from Steve Valiquette’s company, Clear Sight Analytics, support this notion. The Rangers couldn’t turn this into a win, but sometimes that’s the way she goes.
- The Kid Line has been pretty good. This was my X-factor going into this series. Alexis Lafreniėre, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko have not appeared to be overwhelmed by their first NHL playoff experiences (not counting the 2020 bubble series against the Carolina Hurricanes, in which Chytil and Kakko played). The trio has often looked dangerous in the offensive zone. They combined for the Rangers first goal yesterday when Lafreniėre made a beautiful cross-ice, backhand feed to Kakko, who confidently beat Louis Domingue up high. They also scored a goal that should have counted late in Game 1 and likely would have held up to be the winner. In Game 3, they tilted the ice in the Rangers’ favor, as evidenced by an expected-goals-for mark (xGF%) of 61.31, per Natural Stat Trick. Gerard Gallant has even called out their strong play. Now it would just be nice if he gave them more than 10 minutes of ice time together per game.
- This is good experience for the youngsters. On a related note, the huge momentum swings and emotional highs and lows of this series will be beneficial in the long run for the Rangers’ younger, less experienced players like the Kid Line trio and defensemen K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider. These players are the future of the team, and no matter how this series turns out, they’re learning about what it takes to succeed in the playoffs, and how to handle all the ups and downs of the postseason.
- The Rangers finally slowed down the Penguins’ vaunted top line of Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, and Bryan Rust in Game 3. Despite five non-empty-net goals against, none came from this line at even strength. There’s a flip side to this, of course, but more on that later.
- The referees were still pretty bad Saturday, but the power-play opportunities were actually even at three apiece. This is about the best we can hope for against the Penguins, so hopefully this trend continues. (I mostly kid, as I generally don’t like being someone who complains about referees — and the Rangers actually had more power plays in Game 2 — but no one can possibly say the officiating has been good in this series.)
- I predicted that the Rangers would win in this series in six games, so they’ve merely gotten the two losses out of the way. There’s nothing better than the combination of the Rangers winning and me being right.
And now for the good stuff. And by good, I mean bad, but generally more cathartic to write about.
- The Rangers’ biggest advantage did not come through on Saturday. This is the opposite lens of the positive point about Shesterkin above. Goaltending should be the Rangers’ biggest edge in this series, and is even more pronounced with Pittsburgh’s Casey DeSmith out for the playoffs in addition to Tristan Jarry still being sidelined to this point. But Shesterkin was not himself on Saturday, and Georgiev, while solid overall in relief, gave up a very weak goal in the third period that held up to be the winner for the Penguins. The Rangers scored four times on Domingue, but could not beat him during several man-advantage opportunities when they could have taken the lead. This can’t possibly continue, right??
- Related to the above, with Louis Domingue securing another win, we have to continue to hear about the non-story of spicy pork and broccoli ad nauseam. Absolutely brutal.
- Also related to the above, the Rangers lost the special teams battle in Game 3. The Rangers excelled on special teams in the regular season, finishing with the league’s fourth-ranked power play and seventh-ranked penalty kill in terms of success rate. The Penguins scored twice on the power play, while the Rangers were unsuccessful in three attempts, including a couple in the third period that could have put them ahead. That cannot continue if the Rangers want to win this series.
- The Rangers have a problem on the blue line. Ryan Lindgren looked shaky in Game 1, but his absence is pretty noticeable. Justin Braun is not a bad insurance policy to have on the blue line, but has often found himself hemmed in his own end. Patrik Nemeth’s underlying metrics so far in this series are surprisingly not terrible, but I nevertheless find myself holding my breath every time he’s on the ice and the puck is in the defensive zone. My own eye test tells me that he very rarely wins one-on-one puck battles in the defensive zone, and does not have the foot speed to or puck-moving ability to help the Rangers exit their zone cleanly with any regularity. In any event, the Rangers cannot be relying this heavily on Nemeth and Braun long-term, so Lindgren’s return to the lineup is essential. It would be great to see youngster Zac Jones get a chance to play — particularly if Lindgren continues to miss time — as his puck-moving abilities could help cure some of the problems ailing the Rangers. But his youth, inexperience, and lack of size all seem to be strikes against him in the eyes of Gallant, so I’m not really treating this as a viable possibility. I’d be happy to be wrong about this.
- The Blueshirts also have a fourth-line problem. Barclay Goodrow’s injury really hurts the Rangers’ depth, especially coupled with Tyler Motte’s continued absence. The first three lines are fine, but the Rangers are left with a fourth line of Dryden Hunt, Kevin Rooney, and Ryan Reaves, which is suboptimal. Compounding the issue is Gallant’s continued deployment of this line without much apparent regard to on-ice matchups or zone starts. That’s led to some underlying metrics that actually match my own eye test this time: Hunt is sporting an xGF% of 7.58 percent at five-on-five in this series, according to Natural Stat Trick. Reaves and Rooney sit at 14.90 percent and 14.97 percent, respectively. These are impressively bad numbers! With Goodrow seemingly out for at least the rest of this series, a possible return of the speedy, disruptive Motte at some point in this series would go a long way towards alleviating this fourth-line problem. In the meantime, Gallant should consider dressing Jonny Brodzinski in place of Reaves, to give that line a little bit more of a speed element. But, as with Zac Jones, I won’t hold my breath on this one either.
- The Rangers need more from Mika Zibanejad. It’s easy to call out the flaws of the fourth-line and bottom-pairing defensemen, but the Rangers need their stars to be consistent. Chris Kreider and Artemiy Panarin have produced on the score sheet, despite some inconsistent moments from the latter. Adam Fox has consistently been a threat with the puck in the offensive zone. Zibanejad has three assists in this series, but he has not been able to bury some glorious chances both on the power play and in the high slot at even strength. The lack of finishing has also highlighted his struggles in driving play. The Rangers can’t afford to have their top-line center failing to deliver in both of these areas.
- The Penguins’ depth players woke up. This is the unfortunate flip side of the positive point about slowing down Guentzel, Crosby, and Rust. In the first two games, Pittsburgh’s top line comprised of these three players was responsible for the vast majority of the offensive damage against the Rangers. The idea was that if the Rangers could better contain them, they would have a great shot to take control of the series since the rest of Pittsburgh’s lineup was not producing much. Alas, that narrative changed in Game 3, with the Penguins’ depth leading the way on the score sheet. Evan Rodrigues and Jeff Carter each scored twice (Carter’s second goal was an empty-netter), Brock McGinn scored on yet another controversial goal call, and Danton Heinen scored the game-winner. If these players gain confidence and start generating consistent offense to supplement Pittsburgh’s dangerous top line, the Rangers could be in trouble.
- If the Rangers are going to win this series, we will have to hear Pittsburgh’s excruciatingly annoying air horn for two more games. Sickening.
With all of this being said, Game 4 is sure to be another stress-inducing adventure. Can’t wait!