2014 Stanley Cup playoffs: Rangers, Penguins look for Metropolitan Division bragging rights in round 2
The Rangers will face another stiff challenge in round 2 against the Penguins, especially with the amount of hockey New York will have to play in such a short span.
Forget about catching your breath. If you're still in the Round 1 mindset, you'll need to shift gears quickly, as Game 1 between the Rangers and Penguins is scheduled for Friday night at 7 p.m. There's no rest for the weary, as the Rangers are guaranteed to now skate in eight playoff games in 13 days. So for one, expect to hear about how fatigue is becoming a factor if and when the Rangers start to falter. For now though, let's dissect each of these teams, and how this series might play out.
"Slumping" superstars are still playing quite well
If you followed any of the Rangers first round series, you were bound to hear about how Rick Nash was underperforming. Well, you already know our stance on the matter, and Nash continued to buzz as the Philadelphia series went on, registering relative CF% of 14.2 (third best in the postseason), four assists, and directed 30 shots on goal.
For the Penguins, the first round was also—for the most part—a smattering of its top two players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby failed to score in the first round against the Blue Jackets, while posting six assists, and also was strong on the puck with a relative CF% of 10.6. It took Malkin until the decisive Game 6 against Columbus to find the back of the net, a game in which he recorded a hat trick to help the Pens advance. Stating it plainly, both Crosby and Malkin fell victim to a lot of the same misguided criticisms as Nash.
So while you'll hear throughout the second round how both teams needs their best players to score to win, these two teams practically went the first round without goals from their superstars and managed to advance. In reality, they just need them to play well, and make positive contributions (duh). There's certainly more pressure on Crosby and Malkin in a sense that the Rangers are a deeper team. The Penguins are quite top-heavy, especially when Dan Bylsma elects to group Crosby and Malkin on a line, which he did through the latter portion of the first round. Overall, the Rangers are deeper at the forward position, but the Penguins top guys certainly are supremely skilled.
Power vs. power
It wasn't a banner series for Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, but if anything is going to get the Rangers' top two defensemen going, it might be a matchup with Crosby and Malkin. If Bylsma elects to continue to skate his two superstars on the same line, they'll obviously see a healthy dose of McDonagh and Girardi. In the past, John Tortorella would split up the Rangers' top pairing when Crosby and Malkin were on separate lines, and Alain Vigneault probably wouldn't do so either way, the decision becomes much easier for New York's head coach.
It's also no secret the Penguins don't deal with physical play well. McDonagh and Girardi will take every chance they can to hit Crosby and Malkin. And just like in the first round again the Flyers, don't expect to see much of the Derek Stepan line versus the Crosby line. Vigneault feels pretty comfortable putting out Dominic Moore's line out in shutdown situations, and it worked out pretty well limiting Claude Giroux and co.
On the flipside, if the Rangers are going to find success against the Penguins defense, it's going to be through using its new uptempo style versus a slower Pittsburgh defensive corps. Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen had standout first rounds offensively, but are susceptible to making mistakes in their own end. Kris Letang seems to be finding his groove, and alongside Olli Maatta, provide the Penguins more offensive punch from their blueline. Letang and Maatta are two of the Penguins better skaters when it comes to their defensemen, but the Penguins third pairing of Rob Scuderi and either Brooks Orpik (if he's healthy) or Rob Bortuzzo might find the same problems Philadelphia's depth defensemen did against the Rangers' bottom six.
Who will show up in net for Pittsburgh?
Marc-Andre Fleury is again putting some doubt into the heads of the Penguins. It began with a Game 4 collapse that gave the Blue Jackets new life in this year's first round, but really extends to year's past, like when he was benched in favor of Tomas Voukon in the 2013 playoffs. Outside of the Game 4 snafu this year, however, Fleury was quite stellar against Columbus, posting a .948 5-on-5 save percentage.
Henrik Lundqvist is the ultimate competitor, and where he may have faded in year's past as the postseason dragged on, this season (or at least the regular season, because we are in an Olympic year) marks the second-fewest number of games Lundqvist's started since his rookie season. He was certainly put to the test as the first round against the Flyers in a seven game series, and will need to be equally as sharp for New York to fair any chance against the offensively potent Penguins.
- Season series: split 2-1-1; it was actually eery how close the regular season matchup was. Both teams took 4-3 shootout wins, while the Rangers beat Pittsburgh 5-1, and the Penguins returning the favor 5-2.
- The Rangers only lineup change came on the second line, as Vigneault shuffled Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, and Daniel Carcillo around Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin. It seems like the job is now Miller and Carcillo's to fill, of course, until Chris Kreider comes back. Whether or not that happens this round is still unknown. It's now been over a month since his surgery, and the Rangers could certainly use him back.
- Depth has been brought up a lot, and the Rangers had eight players in the first round score two goals in round one. No one scored more than two, but the offense was certainly spread out. The Kings were the only other team to advance to the second round with eight multiple goal scorers, while the Rangers are the only of the eight teams in the second round to not have a three-or-more goal scorer in the postseason.
- When Lundqvist takes the ice for Game 1 of this series, it will be his 74th consecutive playoff start for the Rangers, and his 75th playoff appearance. The franchise record for playoff appearances is held by Mike Richter, and sits at 77.