It wasn't made clear until late Sunday night, but maybe we should have been expecting this all along. After all, it wouldn't be the playoffs without a Pittsburgh Penguins-New York Rangers duel, would it? For the third year in a row, the division rivals will square off. Although there remains uncertainty over the Penguins' lineup, they enter this series as the hottest team in the NHL, having gone from tire fire in the first two months to a team that won 14 of 16 down the stretch. The Rangers have injury issues to contend with but are among the most battle-tested of all NHL teams, having advanced to two Eastern Conference finals and one Stanley Cup finals since 2012.
How they win
Pittsburgh: The simple answer for the Penguins is to keep doing what they've been doing, which is basically win every night. They have been especially good against the Metropolitan Division, going 19-9-2 after going 9-17-4 last season. The Pens' blazingly fast offense has scored a league-best 3.24 goals per game in the 54 games coached by Mike Sullivan, who replaced Mike Johnston after a miserable start. The Penguins are even more dynamic at home, averaging 3.56 goals. Phil Kessel has found his groove after a less-than-prolific start, collecting 12 points in his last nine games, and must keep that going. What remains so impressive about this group is that they actually played some of their best hockey when all-world center Evgeni Malkin went down with a shoulder injury with a month to go in the regular season. Assuming he's OK -- he left Saturday's game after a goal-mouth collision -- Matt Murray has been stellar in relief of Marc-Andre Fleury, who is out with his second concussion of the season.
New York: For the Rangers, it's about finding defensive consistency and getting a forward corps that has the potential to attack in many forms using many weapons in sync. The Rangers will need their captain, Ryan McDonagh, sooner than later -- he is currently sidelined with a hand injury. They'll need Dan Girardi to be better than he has all season and they'll need to find a place for forward Eric Staal to fit in and be productive, something that hasn't happened with any regularity since Staal was acquired at the trade deadline. The former Carolina Hurricanes captain has three goals in 20 games since the trade. To upset the Penguins, the Rangers will also need to get production from winger Rick Nash, who suffered a bone bruise that has limited his contributions since his return. He has two goals in his last 17 games. If the Rangers can create turnovers and draw penalties, they'll keep the Penguins out of sync, although the Rangers power play will have to be better than 2-for-21, which it went over their last seven games. The Penguins have not given up a power-play goal in six straight games.
How they lose
Pittsburgh:Kris Letang has had himself a Norris Trophy-worthy season as the NHL's best defenseman, but with Olli Maatta out with an injury, there remain questions about the Penguins' ability to defend in the playoffs when the going gets heavier. And of course there's the goaltending issue. If Murray, knocked over by Brayden Schenn in Game 82 and Fleury are sidelined, Jeff Zatkoff is the third goaltender and has just 35 NHL games to his credit, none in the playoffs. It seems counterintuitive given what we've seen from the Penguins since Sullivan took over, but they have struggled to score in the postseason in recent years. Last year, they lost four games 2-1 in an opening-round five-game series loss to the New York Rangers. The offense also went dry two years ago in the second round, when they led the Rangers 3-1 in the series but could not close the deal. If that happens again, trouble.
New York: Given some of the defensive issues that have plagued the Rangers for great chunks of this season, the Penguins' speed and skill, even without Malkin in the lineup, is going to be problematic. The Penguins are opportunistic and the Rangers have gone through stretches where they have struggled to move the puck out of their own zone and have been vulnerable to turnovers. One of the Rangers' strengths in recent playoff years has been their scoring depth. The Rangers' lineup boasted five 20-goal scorers this season and that means J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast and Kevin Hayes will have to chip in, and not just once in a while. If they don't, that is going to leave too much in the hands of the defense and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
That's where Crosby ranked in NHL scoring after a five-point October that prompted observers to opine on whether he was done. Not quite. Under Sullivan, Crosby has been revitalized, finishing with 85 points, good for third place in the league. His renaissance is likely to earn him a spot on the Hart Trophy ballot as league MVP. He out-pointed all NHL players from Dec. 12 onward, including collecting points in 20 of his final 21 games.
Pittsburgh: Crosby is the easy answer and you'd put Letang in that category as well, but I'm going to go in a different direction and highlight Nick Bonino. The former Vancouver Canuck who came over in the Brandon Sutter deal last summer has filled in admirably for the injured Malkin and found instant karma with Kessel and former Ranger Carl Hagelin. Bonino has 13 points in his final nine games and if Malkin remains out of the lineup, his role will continue to be a crucial one.
New York: Although Mats Zuccarello and Keith Yandle have both been rocks for the Rangers this season, the team's playoff hopes begin and end with the King, Henrik Lundqvist. He has been remarkably consistent, even at age 34, turning in a .920 save percentage for the season. His numbers did dip slightly after the All-Star break but when the Rangers have had their backs against the wall in the playoffs time and again, Lundqvist has delivered the goods.
The injury issues for both teams will be a major storyline, but the Penguins come into this series with such confidence, and with their top players playing at such a level, it will be too much for the Rangers to overcome. Penguins in 6.