What a difference a year can make. The Penguins needed a win in their final game last season to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but this year they enter as one of the hottest teams in the league.
They have undergone a transformation under coach Mike Sullivan and finished as the third highest-scoring team in the league, notching 2.94 goals per game, while their 2.43 goals-against average ranked sixth. They also took more shots than any other team, finishing with a league-leading average of 33.2 shots per night.
The Rangers missed an opportunity to keep the Penguins behind them in the Metropolitan Division by dropping four of their final seven games. They managed to win three of four over the final week of the season, but these aren’t the Rangers who beat the Penguins in each of the past two postseasons.
These Eastern Conference powers will faceoff for the third consecutive season and it starts Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
Here is a look at some of the specifics ahead of Game 1.
The Penguins took the season series 3-1-0, outscoring the Rangers 12-6 over the final three games.
Teams have met five times in the postseason with the Penguins holding a 4-2 record in those series.
Penguins: Matt Murray (head), day-to-day; Beau Bennett (undisclosed), day-to-day; Bryan Rust (lower-body injury), day-to-day; Scott Wilson (lower-body), injured reserve; Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion), day-to-day; Olli Maatta (lower-body), day-to-day, Evgeni Malkin (arm), injured reserve, Kevin Porter (ankle surgery), injured reserve
Rangers: Eric Staal (upper-body), day-to-day; Viktor Stalberg (lower-body), day-to-day; Mats Zuccarello (lower-body) day-to-day; Dan Girardi (upper-body), day-to-day; Ryan McDonagh (hand), day-to-day
Penguins: Speed will be the way the Penguins get past the Rangers. Carl Hagelin, who was key in eliminating the Penguins last season as a member of the Rangers, has helped Phil Kessel look like the player GM Jim Rutherford hoped and that has the second line looking like one of the best in the league. The Penguins also have been especially good against the Metropolitan Division, going 19-9-2 after a less-than-stellar 9-17-4 record last season. They have also become one of the best home ice teams in the league, going 26-11-4 at Consol Energy Center. Holding serve there will get this done for the Penguins.
Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist, who has lost three straight regular-season games to the Penguins, has to find his groove again. He had what could only be called ‘mind control’ over the Penguins for the better part of 15 months, but that changed on March 3. During that game, the Penguins scored three goals in a span of 2:13 minutes at the end of the second period and won the game 4-1. Since, Lundqvist has been beaten seven times in two games by the Penguins, which has to change for the Rangers to win. He’s capable of stealing games by himself, and it appears that is what he might have to do.
Penguins: The biggest weakness that the Penguins have is the fact that they are entering the playoffs at less than full health. Though they have overcome the loss of Evgeni Malkin, who has been out since March 11, it won’t be as easy without goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. Murray hasn’t been on ice since being knocked out of the Penguins’ final game on Saturday in Philadelphia, but Fleury is close to returning. Not having either available could signal doom at the hands of the Rangers for a third straight season because Jeff Zatkoff doesn’t appear to have the chops to carry them to an extended run in the playoffs.
Rangers: The Rangers still have some youth in their lineup, but they are aging at key spots. That is especially evident on the blueline, where Dan Girardi is looking like a red, white and blue Rob Scuderi. The Penguins speed and transition game is sure to get its opportunities, and the Rangers will have to find a way to offset that if they want to win. They get caught flatfooted too often and Mike Sullivan will exploit that, especially on home ice where he’ll have the final change.
Penguins: It isn’t often that a 39-year-old, 17-year NHL veteran makes his presence felt on a nightly basis, but that is what Matt Cullen has been doing for the Penguins. He finished with 16 goals, his highest total since scored that many for the Rangers in 2006-07, and he is full of intangibles. His 32 points was seventh-highest on the team, he’s one of the best defensive forwards that Sullivan can employee and he doesn’t lose many faceoffs. He is what can be described as an extension of the coaching staff and he won a Stanley Cup with Rutherford in Carolina in 2006. If the Penguins win this year, he’ll play a big role.
Rangers: Mats Zuccarello may be leading the Rangers in scoring, but Moon's J.T. Miller could be the biggest factor for his team. He has the ability to play on the wing or at center and set career highs in goals (22), assists (21), points (43), shots on goal (135) and game-winning goals (five) this season. He chooses his shots wisely, scoring on 16.3 percent of his shots this season, which is 6.3 percent higher than last season. He’ll be fired up playing against a team he rooted for during his formative years, and if the Rangers win the series, Miller’s contributions will be a big key.
A lot hinges on the health of Fleury, but if the workhorse goaltender is able to play the series he’ll be a difference-maker. He and the Penguins defense will hold the Rangers at bay, while Sidney Crosby and the offense light the lamp, exorcise the ghosts of playoff failures past and win the series in six.