By: Jim Meinecke
The Penguins are coming off of a 2-1 loss to the Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference’s first round. After falling behind 1-0 28 seconds into the game and falling behind 2-0 after the first period, the Penguins played a much better final 40 minutes. The Penguins managed a goal in the second period by Blake Comeau, the first of his career, but they could never find the equalizer after that. They did show they could play with the Rangers and have the potential of making this a series. Let’s take a look at some keys each team will focus on tonight.
For the Penguins, they will look for a fast start. The Penguins cannot afford a start like Thursday night, especially playing on the road against one of the league’s best teams. The Penguins have done well this season when scoring the first goal and playing with a lead, but it has been well-documented they are not a good come from behind team. It’s been stated many times, but the Penguins have not come back this season after a second period deficit which makes getting off to a quick start that much more important. Marc-Andre Fleury must come up huge. Fleury shook off a couple of goals he would like to have back on Thursday night to have a great performance. In fact, he finished with a .947 save %, stopping 36 of the Rangers’ 38 shots. In truth, he is one of the only reasons the Penguins were in the game because the Rangers outchanced and outshot the Penguins by a large margin. That being said, he will need to be even better if the Penguins have a chance this series. Fleury needs to play almost flawlessly because the Rangers are the better team. That means he cannot afford to give up a juicy rebound in the slot to Derick Brassard, and he cannot let in a shot from the point from Ryan McDonagh. As good as he was, Lundqvist was better, and that can’t happen if the Penguins are going to have a chance this series. Finally, the Penguins need to win the special teams battle. In a combination of questionable officiating and stupid penalties, the Penguins were short-handed five times on Thursday and only had one power play chance. The power play goal by Ryan McDonagh was the difference Thursday night. So, what can the Penguins do differently tonight? For one, the Penguins cannot make it easy for the officials to make calls against them. That means no two-handed slashes in front of the official, or a cross-check to the head by someone with “Downie” written on the back of his jersey. The Penguins will need to get on the power play more frequently tonight, and they need to score when given the opportunity. The Rangers may have had the 21st ranked power play in the regular season, but the Penguins do not want to keep playing with fire with the likes of Rick Nash, Matx Zuccarello, and Keith Yandle.
The Rangers will look to do much of the same from Thursday. The Rangers will look to insulate Henrik Lundqvist and let him continue to be one of the league’s best goaltenders. They will, however, look to do a better job of clearing the blue paint for Lundqvist. Alain Vigneault made it a point of emphasis at the press conference yesterday to talk about how he was not happy with the officiating Thursday night. He thought Lundqvist was interfered with much more than the one 2 minute minor Chris Kunitz received in the first period. Vigneault’s comments were directed at the officials in hopes they would pay more attention to this, but they were also directed at his team to do a better job of clearing the net. They will also look to make the Penguins’ third and fourth lines beat them. To Blake Comeau and Maxim Lapierre’s credit, they were two of the Penguins’ best forwards on Thursday night. While secondary scoring is vitally important for the Penguins, they will not win this series without major contributions from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I thought Crosby and Malkin did well in terms of driving play and possession in game 1, but they were still shutout. The Rangers will continue to look to take away their time and space. Not much has changed in this regard since last year. The Penguins rarely win without points from Malkin and Crosby, and the Rangers know this. Finally, the Rangers will pressure the Penguins shorthanded. In the regular season, the Rangers were tied for third in the league with 9 shorthanded goals. It’s a testament to the team using guys like Rick Nash to kill penalties. Conversely, the Penguins were second in the league in shorthanded goals allowed with 11, trailing only the Toronto Maple Leafs at 12. The Penguins will continue to employ four forwards and Paul Martin on the first power play unit, and that means they will continue to be very vulnerable to give up a shorthanded goal. This is another area the Penguins really miss Kris Letang. His speed was able to negate a lot of these chances as he was able to get back on an opposing rush.
Is it too early to say this is a do-or-die game for the Penguins? If they fall behind the Presidents Trophy winning Rangers 0-2 in the series, they will not come back from that deficit. If they can find a way to make it 1-1, I think a lot of Rangers’ fans will be nervous. The Penguins showed they can play with the Rangers and make this a series in game 1. It is funny to say, but the more the Penguins can turn this into a scrappy series and more of a pond hockey type of game, the better their chances will be. Sure, they have Crosby and Malkin, but they just do not have the supporting cast right now to win with finesse. They did a lot better at screening Lundqvist in the second and third periods on Thursday. They are going to need to find a way to win an ugly, low-scoring game 1-0 or 2-1 tonight to stay in this series. It’s hard to say what will happen, but I actually think the Penguins find a way to win and even the series. Puck drops tonight at 8 PM.
Thanks for reading!