It’s the overused, worn-out cliche to throw out the records, except in the NHL playoffs. The only wins and losses that matter beginning on Tuesday are the coming four wins or four losses which could signify far more than the end of the Pittsburgh Penguins season but an era. If the decisions haven’t already been made, the next two weeks are the closing arguments.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. The remaining three amigos of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ young championship core of 2009. The wunderkinds who reset the old and stale NHL. The “too young to grow a playoff beard” kids dethroned the mighty Detroit Red Wings, and Sidney Crosby became the youngest captain ever to hoist Lord Stanley’s chalice.
That was a long time ago, and Crosby admitted last week that if this series isn’t the end, it will be sooner than later. The most decorated players of their generation are no longer the kids that Michel Therrien had to chase away from the rink because hockey was the only thing in life.
Families and contracts. Injuries and success. The Penguins are the old vets now, and there is an advantage.
The playoffs are a different animal. The intensity is way higher, so to deal with the ups and downs, either with games or shifts or a period, you have to be able to stay calm and focus on what you have to do and make sure you don’t get carried away with the crowd or penalties, power plays and all kinds of stuff,” Letang said. “So managing emotion, stuff like that, controlling the game, that’s the biggest advantage.”
It’s different now, and we may be witness to the final games. Of course, the Pittsburgh Penguins have no intention of going quietly. Never mind that the Rangers won three of four in the regular season, including three in 10 days from late March through early April by a combined 11-3 score.
Letang more than hinted at it. The Penguins feel like underdogs. Even a little disrespected. Perhaps for the first time since they were the new kids on the grand NHL stage, the Penguins are clearly not favored, and not many are picking them to win.
“I certainly feel like (an underdog),” Letang smiled for effect. “As a team, we have been around for a long time. And when I have a guy like Sid, Geno Jeff Carter, Guentzel, that core group, you have confidence in what you can bring. And if we’re underdogs, fine. That’s all right. But I trust the guys around me, and that’s all I care about.”
The Penguins did not scratch, dent, or otherwise crack Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, who finished the season with an incredible .935 save percentage.
Shesterkin isn’t the Rangers’ only weapon, but he surely is the most imposing.
Still, the Penguins mindset seems to be refreshed. The stale, odious winds that blew through PPG Paints Arena in April had the same stench as porta-potties on Monday after Jamboree in the Hills. The Penguins had four wins in their last 10 games and didn’t perform well against the playoff-caliber teams.
Even Mike Sullivan had a laugh in his Sunday media availability. Sure, it was at PHN’s expense–we asked if he, too, felt like an underdog in the series. He laughed, “That’s for you guys to decide. You’ll make enough noise on the outside.”
Don’t mind if I do.
Pittsburgh Penguins Forwards Matchup:
Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and the mystery right winger have been the Penguins’ offense for much of the season. Whether it was Rickard Rakell or Bryan Rust on the right, Crosby lifted his team on his back. At various points in the season, Crosby had a hand in 40% of the Penguins even-strength offense. According to Natural Stat Trick, Crosby was on the ice for 117 Penguins goals, which calculates to about 43%. At even strength, Crosby was on the ice for 42.2% of the Penguins’ goals.
That’s Hart Trophy finalist stuff.
Crosby and co. will probably see a healthy dose of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Penguins killer Frank Vatrano. In six games (including three with the Florida Panthers), Vatrano had four goals and five points against the Penguins.
Kreider scored a career-high 52 goals, “but” 26 were on the power play. Keeping Kreider away from the Penguins net will be a paramount challenge.
Secondary scoring favors the Penguins on paper and the Rangers in reality.
Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome, and Andrew Copp make a formidable second line. Strome had 54 points, including 21 goals in 74 games. However, when the Rangers added Andrew Copp at the NHL trade deadline, they added a player in all three zones. Copp had 18 points (8-10-18) in just 16 games after the deadline.
He is the secondary scoring the Penguins are missing.
Evgeni Malkin has not produced at even strength, not even with Bryan Rust, Rickard Rakell, Kasperi Kapanen, Jason Zucker, or Evan Rodrigues. It hasn’t been there for the Penguins or Malkin.
Then again, do you want to bet against Malkin, a former Conn Smythe winner, in the playoffs? Last season, Malkin was perhaps the Penguins most dangerous forward in the Round One loss to the New York Islanders, and he did so on one leg. We learned just how impressive his performance was only after the series when Malkin had major knee surgery.
Advantage Rangers, Probably.
The Penguins’ defense has been struggling. The Rangers defense has Norris winner Adam Fox.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan shuffled his defense pairs like a deck of cards, looking for “consistency.”
The Rangers second pairing is K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba, which has a significant advantage over Mike Matheson and Chad Ruhwedel.
If Penguins’ top pair d-man Brian Dumoulin was shaky in the second half. Opponents were able to gain the outside edge and sometimes even breeze by on the inside. In the final two weeks, he seemed to settle in when he returned to pair with Kris Letang.
If Dumoulin is shaky in Round One, the Penguins are in trouble.
Shesterkin. With respect to Casey DeSmith, who we are betting will play some of the best hockey of his life–he seems to have that knack in big games–but Shesterkin might be the best goalie in the NHL.
Now, here’s where the Pittsburgh Penguins can make up ground. Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant is not known as a structural coach. His teams can be loose.
Mike Sullivan is known as many things, including a tactician. Throughout his tenure, the Penguins have deployed little wrinkles in important situations that have big differences. The overwhelming forecheck in Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final vs. Tampa Bay, the slick breakout adjustments in Game 7 against Washington of 2017 spring to mind.
The Penguins dabbled with a few things against Columbus on Friday, including bringing a forward high in the offensive zone.
Unfortunately, the game was decided quickly, and Columbus barely dressed an NHL lineup. Nevertheless, it was a good catharsis for the Penguins. A little feel-good, even against a lesser team, helps.
We like Sullivan in the matchup by a lot.
There’s something about Letang feeling like an underdog that struck me on Sunday. Can THE Pittsburgh Penguins truly go out in Round One with so much at stake? So much history and legacy…to go gently into that good night?
There’s no reason to pick the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The New York Rangers are a little faster, a lot younger, have a better top-four defense and an all-world goalie.
The Rangers thumped the Penguins in the regular season, and maybe even rattled the Penguins cage, just a bit. The Rangers forecheck was better and the Penguins didn’t show the heart to really punch back.
This will be different. The speed and intensity should be higher. The Rangers have a few unknowns in that department, including Fox and Shesterkin.
The head says take the Rangers in a short series.
“There isn’t a more accomplished core group of players in the game than this core group that’s here right now. These guys are battle-tested. They’ve been through a lot,” Sullivan said.
But the heart? The Penguins’ core feeling like underdogs? This means war. Take the Penguins in 7.
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