Depending on who you listen to, Rangers-Penguins has already been dubbed a colossal mismatch…in both teams' favor. NBC's resident failed GM and malcontent, Mike Milbury, declared the Pens will take it in five easy games, while MSG's local legend — and unparalleled homer — Stan Fischler chose the Blueshirts to trounce Crosby and Co. in five. Most reasonable people think it'll fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Here's the blow-by-blow breakdown:
It's depth versus star power up front. Very, very few teams have an answer to the duo of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby — when on, the pair are arguably the best two players in the game. James Neal and Chris Kunitz have established themselves as allstars in their own right, and Jussi Jokinen is a solid complimentary piece. The problem for Pitt is that the quality takes a sharp nose dive after those five. Brandon Sutter is a solid third line center, but is the lone standout on the Pens bottom-6, which not only struggles to score, but has issues keeping the play out of their own end. Pittsburgh is a two line team, and when the two big guns are quiet, they're vulnerable. When Crosby and Malkin struggled against Columbus, Dan Bylsma made the decision to deploy the two together, but that only serves to further weaken the Pens' suspect depth. Conversely, the Rangers roll four lines, all of which are capable of making contributions and dictating play — but all four struggle intermittently to find the back of the net. Ultimately, it's Pittsburgh's ability to finish — and the Blueshirts on again, off again, struggles to do so, even with Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis in the fold — that gives them the edge in this department.
Since winning the cup, Pittsburgh, despite having some big names, consistently struggles to defend in their own zone. Paul Martin had a phenomenal first round — 8 assists and a plus-7 — and is Pittsburgh's top two-way defender, Brooks Orpik is solid but aging, Kris Letang is an offensive dynamo, but was underwhelming in round one after returning from that scary stroke incident, and Matt Niskanen had the gaudiest plus/minus of any defenseman in the regular season. Despite having the makings of a well above average top-4, if you watch Pitt defend — take the end of game six against Columbus as an example — they too often appear scrambly and dysfunctional in their own end. The Rangers are seldom plagued by such problems. Ryan McDonagh – despite a so-so series against Philly — has joined the ranks of the NHL's elite, Dan Girardi is the player Brooks Orpik goes to bed at night praying he wakes up as, Marc Staal would be a top pair D-man on most teams, and Anton Stralman is steady and underrated. Pittsburgh's D might have more offensive upside, but when it comes to doing the job they're paid to do — you know, defending — there's no comparison.
Now listen, are Pittsburgh's flame outs the last few postseasons all Marc-Andre Fleury's fault? No, of course not. But when you see stuff like this:
…and realize it's not exactly an isolated incident…
…than clearly not all is well in regards to the Penguins' goaltending. Some would say the fact that Fleury has a Stanley Cup on his resume and Henrik Lundqvist doesn't makes him the superior netminder, but that's ridiculous — hockey is, after all, a team sport. Fleury hasn't posted a SV% over .900 in the playoffs since 2009, Lundqvist hasn't had one lower than .908 since his rookie year — which one would you trust more in a big spot?
This is a tough one. Dan Bylsma has the ring, but Alain Vigneault was within a game of getting his own in 2011, and of the two, has been to the finals more recently. No one doubts Bylsma's coaching acumen — he's held together some injury-riddled Penguins' teams with sticks and glue — but his club has shown a shocking lack of composure when things go sour the last few years, and that's troubling. One could argue that if Pittsburgh bows out to the Rangers, Disco Dan could be on the unemployment line. Vigneault, meanwhile, has done an excellent job staying the course with this Blueshirts team after his club looked listless early on. He's changed the style of play and made it so the Rangers can hang with a team like Pittsburgh, where as in the past, there was little reason to believe they could. We'll call it a push in the coaching department.
Pittsburgh was top-5 in the league in both power play and penalty kill, but took a bit of step back against Columbus, where they were just 20 for 27 on the kill, and 6 of 29 with the man advantage — a good number, but below their league best regular season PP% of 23.4. Still, the Pens' special teams — in both the regular season and playoffs thus far — is superior to the Rangers'. A power play that slumped to end the season finished the Flyers' series in an 0 for 21 gulf, while the penalty kill — third in percentage during the regular season — was an unspectacular 14 of 20 against Philly.
Verdict: Pens in 7
I agonized over this, I truly did. Heck, I even wrote an article last week about the Penguins vulnerability. What swung me? The schedule, which is incredibly unkind to the Rangers. Playing games 6 and 7 of the Flyers' series back-to-back puts the Blueshirts in a position where they'll be forced to play 5 games in 7 nights by game 3, and if the series goes 7, that will mean an unrelenting 9 in 15 nights. It's just too much. Hockey is draining — playoff hockey even more so — and realistically, at some point in this series, the Rangers are going to be a tired team. The Blueshirts had their chances to shorten the Philly series — up 2-0 at home in game 2 before blowing it; the game 6 no-show — but failed to do so, and will pay for it here. The Rangers will outplay Pittsburgh at points in this series, exploiting their lack of depth, but unless they get Crosby to unravel and the rest of his mates to follow — which isn't impossible:
…or Lundqvist thoroughly upstages Fleury — also not impossible — they'll come up just a little bit short.
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