Two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were widely regarded as underdogs going into their Round One playoff series against the New York Rangers.
That made perfect sense.
Among other things, the Rangers finished seven points ahead of the Penguins during the regular season, and the Penguins’ all-star goalie, Tristan Jarry, was sidelined indefinitely by a broken bone in his foot.
Sunday night, the Rangers will be a popular choice to claim a spot in the second round by winning Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
That’s totally logical, too.
Hey, New York won Games 5 and 6, will be playing in front of a boisterous and supportive crowd and is facing a team that failed to protect multiple-goal leads in each of its past two defeats.
But none of that, it must be noted, means it would be prudent for the Rangers to start planning for a matchup with Carolina in the next round.
The Penguins are too experienced and too talented — even if the likes of Sidney Crosby, Tristan Jarry and Rickard Rakell are operating at less than 100 percent, assuming they’re cleared to dress for the game at all — to be written off just yet.
Their path to Round 2 isn’t nearly as open and inviting as it was when they had a 3-1 lead in the series, but it isn’t completely closed, either.
The Penguins still have a legitimate opportunity to get there, and doing the following five things would enhance their chances of doing it:
1. Start strong
This hasn’t been a problem for the Pittsburgh Penguins since New York overwhelmed them during the opening period of Game 1 — that’s the only time the Rangers have led at the first intermission in this series — but getting another good start in Game 7 might be as difficult as it will be important.
The Rangers are on a roll and will be feeding off the energy of a raucous Garden crowd, so they likely will be operating at high speed and with ill intent from the first shift.
Teams often talk about having to weather an early storm; in this case, the Penguins should be braced for about a Category 4. Not easy to survive, for sure, but it can be done.
2. Give Jarry a chance
Although it’s hard to imagine that Jarry won’t get the start unless playing him would be a risk to his well-being, his teammates have to remember that he hasn’t been in a game for over a month.
That means things that should be on the defensive to-do list for every game — limiting odd-man chances, keeping the front of the net clear, getting loose pucks out of danger areas, etc. — are absolutely imperative in this one.
Even though Jarry almost certainly will have some rust on his game, he’s capable of stopping anything that he’s able to see, especially if it isn’t on a second or third opportunity.
3. Get something from Kapanen
This is not to suggest that it’s Kasperi Kapanen’s job to carry the offense in Game 7. Far from it.
But despite playing his best hockey of the season in this series — not that anyone looking down from that level would be in danger of suffering from vertigo — Kapanen has yet to get a puck past Igor Shesterkin or Alexander Georgiev.
He’s averaging three shots on goal per game, so the issue is not a reluctance to put pucks at the net. But a timely goal from him on the night when the series will be decided could take a lot of the sting out of the regular season that preceded it.
4. Forecheck effectively
The Penguins have done a surprisingly good job of that for much of the series, and it serves multiple purposes when they’re able to pull it off.
If they can get the puck deep into the Rangers’ end and keep it there with a well-executed cycle, there’s a reasonable chance that it eventually will lead to a decent scoring chance when a crack develops in New York’s defensive coverage.
Equally — if not more — important is that making New York spend a lot of time and energy in its own end not only drains the Rangers’ energy reserves, but prevents them from getting their often-lethal transition game going. There’s just no downside for the Pittsburgh Penguins if they can manage to do that.
5. Don’t lose special-teams battle
Six games into the series, this objective seems about as realistic as asking a convenience-store clerk to guarantee the lottery ticket you’re about to purchase is a big winner.
Aside from a brief spasm of competence in Game 3, when it converted two of three chances, the Penguins’ power play has been mostly pedestrian, and its inability to capitalize on a pair of extended two-man advantages is one of the reasons this series isn’t already over. Even worse is that the power play has given up two goals.
The penalty-kill was one of the NHL’s best for most of the regular season, but sputtered down the stretch and has given up five goals in 15 shorthanded situations during Round 1.
New York’s power play has a quick-strike capability whose impact is best limited by not taking penalties that aren’t absolutely necessary. Doubters need only refer to Evan Rodrigues’ second-period roughing minor that altered the tone — and the direction — of Game 6.
Avoid that kind of mistake in Game 7, and maybe, just maybe, the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era won’t be in its final hours, after all.