From left: Derick Brassard, Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni MalkinPhoto: Getty Images (2)
Derek Stepan, student of history, stopped himself as he was addressing the favorite/underdog thing in the one-eight, first-round matchup the Rangers will open at the Garden on Thursday against the Penguins.
“Didn’t the Kings win the first one as an eight seed?” Stepan asked, the question answering itself three years after L.A. did indeed beat the eastern six-seeded Devils in the Cup final. “So I’d say, if you look at a team as if they’re an ‘eight seed,’ you’re making a mistake.
“We can’t go about this as if it’s ‘one-eight,’ ” he said. “We have to approach this as if it’s the Rangers-Penguins, and we’re up against two players you could easily argue are the two best players in the league.
“As far as favorites, underdogs, first seed, eighth seed, that doesn’t mean a thing.”
The two players to whom Stepan referred are of course Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. One Ranger after another — including the coach, Alain Vigneault — repeated the “Crosby-Malkin-two-of-the-best-players-in-the-league” mantra.
Maybe because it’s true.
It’s also true, however, that the Penguins, largely decimated by injury on their back end, struggled to cross the finish line, somehow scoring a meager 24 goals over their final 15 games, in which they went 4-9-2.
Let’s face it: If the Penguins didn’t have the pedigree, they’d be perceived as an easy out. But they do have the pedigree, even if fraying. And they do have Crosby and Malkin. If the Rangers do somehow make the mistake they have vowed not to make of looking at this as one-eight, then the Blueshirts will find themselves behind the eight ball.
The Rangers undoubtedly will make their share of mistakes on the ice in this series. But underestimating their opponents is not a mistake the defending Eastern Conference champions and newly minted Presidents’ Trophy winners are likely to make.
Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t about the numbers, even as the Rangers pumped in 15 goals on 112 shots in 214:04 (.843/4.20) during the 3-0-1 season-series domination. Rather, since capturing the Cup in 2009 with a steely Game 7 performance in Detroit, Fleury has been about surrendering questionable/soft ones at the worst possible times. Fleury recorded 10 shutouts during the season, but again, it’s not about that.
Henrik Lundqvist, who surrendered one goal apiece in Games 5, 6 and 7 of last year’s conference semis with the Rangers facing elimination in each contest, enters as close to the top of his game as possible. The Rangers draw a large measure of their confidence from Lundqvist’s equanimity off the ice and his competitiveness on it.
Kris Letang’s absence due to the latest in a series of concussions sustained by the upper-echelon, attack-oriented defenseman only changes about everything about the dynamic — and dynamism — on the blue line for Pittsburgh, which apparently will open the series without Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot, both recovering from injuries. This puts an immense amount of stress on Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole, likely to be joined in the Game 1 lineup by Brian Dumoulin and Taylor Chorney.
The Rangers will attempt to use their speed and rush game to force the Penguins defense into misreads.
Kevin Klein’s absence out of the gate creates more challenging matchup calls for Vigneault, who generally likes to have Marc Staal out against Crosby, but by doing so would have the defensively challenged Dan Boyle along for the ride … unless, of course, the coach is going to reunite Staal with Dan Girardi while pairing Ryan McDonagh with Boyle against Malkin. With Klein in the lineup that features Keith Yandle coming from the back on the third pair, the Rangers are as deep as anybody on the blue line while getting their giddyup from the quick turnaround from defense to offense. Without Klein, not quite as good, but good enough.
Crosby, by all accounts, is healthy, which he was not while scoring one goal in his last 18 playoff games over the last two years, that one against the Rangers in last year’s Game 3. Malkin, bothered by injuries the second half of the season, didn’t record a point over the final four games. Chris Kunitz, who had a season well below his standards, scored one goal over the final 21 games. Patric Hornqvist is a net presence with good hands, Brandon Sutter is a legit third-liner, Blake Comeau is always a pain in the neck for the Rangers, and Steve Downie is a five-minute major waiting to be called. The Penguins’ 2.65 goals-per was the second lowest among playoff qualifiers, ahead of only Montreal’s 2.61.
The Rangers are deep and skilled, with Vigneault showing increasing faith in rookie Kevin Hayes’ ability to handle all situations since Martin St. Louis joined the rookie’s line in Game 77. The Rick Nash-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello unit will push the pace, and the Chris Kreider-Stepan-J.T. Miller trio will attempt to work the Penguins’ D down low. Dom Moore, who always elevates in big moments, is also always a handful for Crosby.
The Penguins finished 10th in the NHL on the power play at 19.3 percent, while the Rangers, whose man-advantage unit habitually has been less than the sum of its parts since Sergei Zubov was traded, clocked in 10th worst at 16.8. The Penguins drew only 22 more PP’s (254-232) during the year. Pittsburgh’s penalty killers finished third at 84.8 with six shorthanded goals while the Blueshirts were a couple of ticks behind at 84.3 while scoring nine shorties.
Mike Johnston, who was hired as the anti-Dan Bylsma, is probably coaching for his job here with the market overflowing with available candidates.
Vigneault is taking his third Presidents’ Trophy winner into the playoffs, with Vancouver previously having lost to the Bruins in the 2011 final and to the eighth-seeded Kings in the 2012 first round. The coach’s approach has resonated with the one-game-at-a-time Rangers.
On paper, it shapes up as a mismatch, but the game is played on ice. The Rangers have edges that can be exploited, but have to be careful not to leave the door open so Crosby and Malkin can get out of the barn.