NEW YORK — The Pittsburgh Penguins are underdogs in their opening-round playoff series against the New York Rangers.
After all, they finished behind New York in the Metropolitan Division, which means they won’t have home-ice advantage in this round and lost three of four games to the Rangers during the regular season.
Still, the Penguins’ elimination from Round 1 for the fourth consecutive year is not a fait accompli.
Here are four things they can do to enhance their chances of making it past the Rangers:
Win the special-teams battle
The Penguins’ power play and penalty-kill underachieved during the stretch drive, and if that trend holds during the playoffs, this series might be over before it really starts.
New York had the NHL’s third-best power play during the regular season (24.3 percent success rate) and No. 7 penalty-kill (82.3 percent), while the Penguins finished with the third-best shorthanded unit (84.4 percent) and 19th ranked power play.
A few brief spasms of excellence aside, the Penguins power play was lackluster most of the season. There’s no reason a unit that features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust shouldn’t be scoring on at least a quarter of its chances if it is operating efficiently.
Oh, and throwing pucks at the net more than once every 90 seconds of so.
Neutralize the Rangers’ transition game
New York can turn a play in the other direction as well as any club in the NHL, and did so quite effectively against the Penguins during the regular season.
Changing that involves not only the obvious — not turning the puck over to the Rangers in the neutral zone — but getting pucks deep into the attacking zone and keep them there.
Making the Rangers play a 200-foot game would go a long way toward reducing their chances to make a game-altering rush.
Diversify Pittsburgh Penguins offense
As noted on this site earlier today, the Penguins’ prospects of reaching Round 2 will be greatly enhanced if they can have balanced scoring.
As good as the Guentzel-Crosby-Rust line can be, it can’t carry this team — or any other one, for that matter — through a series.
If Evgeni Malkin, Rickard Rakell, and Jeff Carter, among others, don’t show up on the scoresheet, the Penguins are in trouble.
Keep the focus on team defense
Casey DeSmith will be the Pittsburgh Penguins’ go-to goalie while Tristan Jarry recovers from a broken bone in his foot, and relying on a backup never is ideal in such a high-stakes setting.
And while DeSmith is capable of keeping the Penguins competitive, it would help him a lot of his teammates put as much — or more — effort and energy into preventing goals as they do scoring them.
The Penguins have demonstrated an ability to play quality team defense. There is no better time to put that muscle memory into action than in the playoffs.
Exploit their edge in playoff experience
The Penguins have an old team, and that can be a liability, for obvious reasons.
The playoff experience that comes with it, however, can be a major asset, especially when matched against a young team that has spent limited time in that setting.
Considering that New York’s only postseason experience during the past four years came in the qualifying round in 2020, there’s no guarantee the Rangers will hold up under the pressure that comes with playoff hockey.
The Penguins’ best opportunity to take advantage of that will come early in the series. If they can win at least one of the first two games at Madison Square Garden, they will give themselves a legitimate shot to make it to Round 2 for the first time since 2018.
|Jake Guentzel||Sidney Crosby||Bryan Rust|
|Jason Zucker||Evgeni Malkin||Rickard Rakell|
|Danton Heinen||Ryan Poehling||Kasperi Kapanen|
|Brock McGinn||Sam Poulin||Drew O'Connor|
|Brian Dumoulin||Kris Letang|
|Marcus Pettersson||Jeff Petry|
|P.O Joseph||Jan Rutta|