November 21, 2016 @ 7:00 PM - PPG Paints Arena
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh
After splitting a pair of games against the Islanders and Sabres outside of regulation, the Penguins will look to get back on track against the division-leading Rangers. Pittsburgh may have easily moved past New York in the opening round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the two teams that take the ice tonight will have a wildly different feel to them. After being expected to take a step back this year, the Rangers have started off strongly with a league best +31 goal differential on the back of an absurd 4.11 goal per game average while allowing just 2.33 goals against per game, good for 6th in the league. The Penguins, on the other hand, have battled injuries in the early weeks of the season and have had difficulty recapturing the magic that propelled the team to their 4th Stanley Cup Championship.
While the Rangers didn't blow up their roster after an early postseason exit, they did make a notable move that shook up the top of their roster. Derick Brassard had finished 4th, 2nd, and 2nd in scoring on the team in his 3 full seasons in New York, but that didn't stop GM Jeff Gorton from dealing the 29-year-old center and a 2018 7th round pick to the Ottawa Senators for 23 year-old-center Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 2nd round pick. Fresh off back-to-back 20 goal season, Zibanejad has adjusted nicely to his new team, putting up 5 goals and 10 assists through 19 games. Brassard meanwhile has struggled, managing just 2 goals and 5 assists in 18 games with the Senators. Given that Zibanejad is entering his prime, while Brassard is leaving his, Gorton did a nice job with the trade of providing for the future while keeping the current team competitive. However, no roster move is immune from the injury bug, and the Rangers will be without Zibanejad long term after the forward crashed awkwardly into to boards behind the net in last night's game, breaking his fibula.
Gorton's will need to continue to show the ability to retool on the fly in order to contend for a Stanley Cup while Henrik Lundqvist continues to play at a high level. Lundqvist will turn 35 before the season ends, but Father Time still has yet to catch up to the Swedish netminder, who has an active streak of 7 seasons with at least a 0.920 SV%. However, he remains saddled with a number of large contracts he inherited when taking over during the 2015 offseason. Rick Nash ($7.8 million) has been up and down over the past few seasons, bottoming out last year with career lows in goals (16) and points (36), but he's had a good start to the 2016-17 season, with 7 goals and 4 assists in the early going. Marc Staal ($5.7 million AAV) and Dan Girardi ($5.5 million AAV) are no longer effective top 4 defensemen, but given their cap hits they make it difficult for New York to address their defense. Lundqvist has been able to hide their defensive deficiencies up to this point, but that will prove to be more difficult as he enters the twilight of his career.
But as the Penguins showed last season, just because the championship window appears to be closing doesn't mean smart moves can't prop it back open again. Gorton was able to earn another win late in the offseason when Jimmy Vesey, the most heralded NCAA free agent forward since Justin Schultz, signed with the Rangers. And like Schultz, Vesey has had a strong start to his rookie season, netting 7 goals along with 5 assists on the year. Vesey and Zibanejad, along with JT Miller and Chris Kreider, have injected youth into the Rangers' forwards corps, and while the team is succeeding with an unsustainable 13.67 SH% and 105.7 PDO, both tops in the league, the future is looking brighter for New York than it did just a few short months ago.
- The Penguins have placed Chris Kunitz on IR and recalled Jake Guentzel from Wilkes-Barre. Guentzel leads WBS with 17 points in 16 games, and he's expected to make his NHL debut at left wing on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
- Though he missed the first 6 games of the year with a concussion, Sidney Crosby certainly hasn't suffered any ill effects or rust in the early going, tying Patrick Laine for the league lead in goals with 12 in as many games. Crosby's 1.33 points per game average also tops the league as well,