Key Observations Heading Into Game 1 Between the Penguins and Rangers

The-Pens-Nation-Gameday-Report1

By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

The Pittsburgh Penguins last played a postseason game on May 13, 2014 against the New York Rangers. The Rangers won that Game 7 at CONSOL Energy Center to move on to the third round of the NHL playoffs and eliminated the Penguins. It would end up being the last time Dan Bylsma, Todd Reirden and Tony Granato would coach in Pittsburgh.

With over 10 new players and a new coaching staff, Mike Johnston‘s Penguins will look to get revenge on the Rangers starting tonight with Game 1 of this first round series at Madison Square Garden. It won’t be an easy task, however. The Rangers (53-22-7) won the President’s Trophy for having the most points in the league and ended with a 7-3 record in their last 10 games of the season. Pittsburgh (43-27-12), on the other hand, almost missed the playoffs after an awful second half of the season where they went 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. It’s a bit of a different script for the Penguins, who are a wild-card team this year in the playoffs. For the first time in at least three years, the Penguins go into the playoffs as an underdog. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing for Pittsburgh, though. The last five years haven’t been too kind to them in the postseason after cruising through the regular season.

Just to get an idea of how different this Penguins team is from last year, here are the new arrivals this season and players/coaches who have left from the last series between these two teams:

NEW ARRIVALS

Mike Johnston
Rick Tocchet
Gary Agnew
David Perron
Patric Hornqvist
Blake Comeau
Nick Spaling
Maxim Lapierre
Steve Downie
Daniel Winnik
Scott Wilson
Taylor Chorney
Ian Cole
Brian Dumoulin
Christian Ehrhoff
Scott Harrington
Ben Lovejoy
Derrick Pouliot
Thomas Greiss

DEPARTURES FROM 2014 PLAYOFF ROSTER

Dan Bylsma
Todd Reirden
Tony Granato
Matt Niskanen
Olli Maatta (Injured)
Robert Bortuzzo
Brooks Orpik
Kris Letang (Injured)
Deryk Engelland
Tanner Glass
James Neal
Lee Stempniak
Jussi Jokinen
Joe Vitale
Brian Gibbons
Marcel Goc
Chris Conner
Taylor Pyatt
Jeff Zatkoff
Tomas Vokoun

It’s pretty crazy that Pittsburgh will have 16 players on this year’s playoff roster that were not on it last year. That is quite a transformation in a year, especially on defense. Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi are the only two defensemen on the Penguins 2015′ playoff roster that were on it last year as well. Olli Maatta (shoulder) and Kris Letang (concussion) are both out for the season so I did not count them. Speaking of defense, it will be interesting to see who actually plays in the playoffs. It seems pretty likely Martin, Scuderi, Cole and Lovejoy will start, but the rest of the spots are up for grabs. Christian Ehrhoff, who has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries of late, was officially cleared for contact on Tuesday. However, he is doubtful to play tonight. If Ehrhoff is ready to play, that leaves Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Taylor Chorney for the last spot. Johnston seemed to lean towards Chorney among those three since he has played well since being the emergency recall several games back. Derrick Pouliot returned to practice today for the first time since being injured, but it doesn’t seem likely he will play tonight either. If Ehrhoff and Pouliot can’t play tonight, Johnston said that Dumoulin could play with Chorney since they played the majority of the year together in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

No matter who plays tonight, it is going to be a tough task to beat the Rangers in their building. The Penguins know how good goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is. He was extremely hard to beat last year in the playoffs and Pittsburgh expects that to be the case again this season as well. Lundqvist notched a 30-13-3 record with a 2.25 goals-against average in 46 games this season. The Swedish goalie missed a chunk of games after an injury. Backup goaltender Cam Talbot held the fort while Lundqvist was out, which was a big reason why New York was able to keep it together without their top player. While Lundqvist is an elite goaltender, he has quite a group of defensemen in front of him. Those defensemen include Dan Boyle, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Keith Yandle. Yandle was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes at the trade deadline by the Rangers and was considered one of the biggest trades this year. The Rangers blue line will not have Kevin Klein for Game 1, however, who missed the team’s last 16 games because of a broken arm. Matt Hunwick will take Klein’s spot in the lineup so that may be a hole in the Rangers’ lineup for the Penguins to expose.

The Rangers also have a ton of talented forwards. They can easily roll four good lines every single game with guys like Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Speaking of Nash, he was unable to practice yesterday as a result of the flu, but the Rangers expect Nash to play tonight. Nash had an incredible season this year by scoring 42 goals and adding 27 assists so he is obviously a key player for the Rangers in this series. The depth on this team is incredible and it’s a big reason why New York is considered a favorite to win the East.

In the playoffs, it’s all about goaltending and this series will provide a great match up in goal between Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury earned the Penguins’ Team MVP award after recording a 34-20-9 record in addition to 10 shutouts and a 2.32 goals-against average in 64 games. He has arguably been Pittsburgh’s most consistent player this season and should continue to build off that. While Fleury will need to keep playing well, the Penguins really need guys like Patric Hornqvist to make life miserable for Lundqvist in front of the net. That would really set the tone well for Pittsburgh.

New York went 3-0-1 in the season series this year against Pittsburgh as the Penguins struggled mightily against the Metropolitan Division teams. In order for the Penguins to have any chance in this series, they need to play smart hockey and do well on special teams. The power play units for the Penguins really struggled in the second half of the season, but if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can get going, Pittsburgh could surprise some people. The young defensemen will need to make smart decisions with their positioning because the Rangers are a fast team who will feast off turnovers.

Being the underdog in a playoff series is something the Penguins haven’t dealt with in a long time and based on the past five years, maybe that’s a good thing. The high expectations went out the window after a rough second half of the season, but again, that could be a good thing. Pittsburgh has already dealt with some adversity so let’s see how they respond at the most important time of the season. Pittsburgh will have their work cut out for them in this series, but a victory tonight could bring this team together. Enjoy playoff hockey, everyone. Never take it for granted.

Projected Lineups:

PITTSBURGH

Winnik-Crosby-Hornqvist
Kunitz-Malkin-Perron
Bennett-Sutter-Downie
Spaling-Lapierre-Comeau

Martin-Lovejoy
Scuderi-Cole
Chorney-Dumoulin

Fleury

NEW YORK

Nash-Brassard-Zuccarello
Kreider-Stepan-Miller
Hagelin-Hayes-St. Louis
Glass-Moore-Fast

McDonagh-Girardi
Staal-Boyle
Yandle-Hunwick

Lundqvist