Playoff hockey is here again and for the second year in a row, the Penguins will face the Rangers in Round 1. We are into the "second season" where all that matters is getting those four wins per series however you can. Normally, facing a team such as the Rangers right off the get-go would be enough to send forwards into fits but this is a brand new year. Through what has been an emotional roller coaster ride of a season, the Penguins have shown that not only can they rise to the occasion, they can skyrocket and surpass it.
Both teams are dealing with injuries to key players but even so, the series will not be won easily for our boys now clad in "Pittsburgh" gold. The Rangers are not a team to just lay down and die. This could very well end up being the best series in the entire playoffs. It will definitely be exciting to watch.
The regular season is now over. The slate is wiped clean. Both teams are 0-0.
Here are my thoughts on how the Pens can be successful in the opening round and move on to the next.
Solid Defence:Although the Rangers will be without Captain Ryan McDonough, the Penguins cannot afford to slack off and allow the Ranger's other scoring threats get to open ice. We have seen that no player can or should be underestimated. Eric Staal being one of them. He put up back to back goals in their last meeting (a 3-2 OT Pens victory) which no one saw coming. Dan Girardi has not been fully ruled out as he was seen practicing just yesterday. That leads me to believe he is ready to go and, although rather slow (New York's version of Rob Scuderi perhaps?), it's that kind of player you can't write off. They can have a tendency to come back and bite you. The Rangers have had a tough time in the scoring area and Rick Nash's playoff issues aren't exactly a secret. Look for Miller, Stepan and Hayes to step up and possibly become bigger threats. Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard paired on the 2nd line has been a force for the Rangers so it will be up to the defence to take away the lanes. With the goalie situation still up in the air, it will be even more important for the Penguins defensemen to block and deflect shots and give support to their net-minder. Especially if the net-minder's last name begins with a Z.
Discipline/ Smart Hockey:One way or another, the Rangers can have a tendency to get in the heads of their opponents. The Penguins will have to keep their cool when things get testy and chippy. Spending as little time in the sin bin and at even strength means more chances and more time to shift momentum the other direction (if needed). Maybe do some psyche damage of their own (we will get to that in a minute). Sticking to their resilient nature if/when behind, playing smart (yet physical) hockey and not playing to the Rangers game is going to be a huge factor in the series.
Get to Lundqvist:The sight of "The King" throwing a hissy fit like a spoiled little prince who didn't get his way will forever be etched in the minds of Penguins and Rangers fans. It was in that moment that he showed his real weakness. The Pens have done a great job exposing this over and over again ever since. If you can get in his head early, then you get to him the whole game. Get right up in his face so much that they know what scent he wears by the end of the game. Taking as many shots on net one right after the other, preferably from different angels, will soon throw him off balance and *ding*, lamp goes on. Which leads me to my next point...
Capitalize on any and all opportunities:As stated above, the more shots you can take at one time on Lundqvist, the more likely he will be to get off balance. Passing drills are great for practice but when you are spending 25-45 seconds looking for that "perfect shot", it opens the door for mistakes and turnovers. Power Plays may be hard to come by so taking advantage of every scoring opportunity is important. With Crosby back up to form aided by Patric Hornqvist, fellow point streaker Kris Letang, and a solid showing by virtually all four of the Penguins forward lines, the Rangers will have their hands full when it comes to who has the hot stick. Smart decisions have to be made though. A lot of times, when facing a team mates former club, the Pens like to try and make them shine a little more. They try to get them the puck a lot so they can score on their former squad. STOP! Let it come as it may (if at all) and don't try and force it. The Rangers will be expecting it so just make plays that can be the most productive.
Although this may be their first go-round in the NHL playoffs, call-ups such as Tom Kuhnackl, Conner Sheary, (the injured) Bryan Rust, and Oskar Sunqvist have been instrumental in adding depth in the scoring. Veteran Matt Cullen...the man has found the fountain of youth (and if he could please SHARE some of those sacred waters with me, that would be great). Is there nothing the man can't do right now? Stop...he can't stop being amazing.
The Pens have been great when it comes to puck possession in the latter half of the season, one of the leagues best in fact. This stat will help their scoring chances tremendously (common sense really). Word has it Gerardi and M. Staal have been paired together to "take care" of Crosby so that leaves me with one question: If they have Crosby double teamed with the 2 biggest liabilities on the Rangers bench, who is covering these guys......
HBK and Pure Speed:
Centered by Nick Bonino, that second line has been nearly untouchable and there is nothing more you can describe it as except "wicked fast". Poke fun at Kessel all you want about his size, the man could go blue line to blue line 6 times before most of us could do it once. Add in the youngsters and one of the fastest defensemen in the league (if not the fastest defensemen) in Kris Letang and you have a recipe that has brought the Pens to where they are now. So I will say this once and once only: If it isn't broke, don't try to fix it by throwing Geno in there when/if he gets back. I don't care how much he complains, put him with anyone else but them (perhaps with Sheary or Kuhnackl). Just leave it alone and be thankful.
The Penguins took the season series 3-1 against the Rags. They have shown that no matter what the adversity, that they can stand together to face the battle and come out on top. The prediction by many is that the Penguins can take the series in 6 games (possibly 5 with the return of Marc-Andre Fleury). It will be hard fought, but I believe they can do it.
Seat Belt- engaged. Rally Towel- activated. Drop the puck- it's go time.