By Larry Brooks
April 13, 2016
PITTSBURGH — So this is what the Rangers have been waiting for not only all year, but pretty much since the moments after their May 29 elimination by the Lightning in last year’s Game 7 of the conference finals.
The 82-game marathon of the regular season wasn’t so much a prologue to the playoffs as a necessary obstacle to overcome in order to simply get back to the starting line.
And so it starts against the team the Blueshirts beat in seven of their last eight playoff games the last two springs, it starts against the team the Rangers eliminated the last two years. But at the same time it starts against the team that beat the Blueshirts three times in March to leapfrog them in the standings while going 14-1 to clinch first-round home ice.
“Everything we’ve done against them in the playoffs doesn’t count anymore,” Derick Brassard said following Tuesday’s practice. “But what they did against us the last few games doesn’t count either.
“They’re the team that’s getting the love and they deserve it. But we’re a pretty good team, too.”
It is a pretty good team whose core is mounting up for its Last Ride. Six of these guys — Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider — have been together for all of the last four go-’rounds in which the Rangers won eight rounds while playing 76 games. Three more essentials — Brassard, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello — joined the party in 2013. Four more — Kevin Klein, J.T. Miller, Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast — made the trek to L.A. for the 2014 Cup final.
Cap issues aside, there necessarily will be changes this offseason, for there are only so many times a team can try it with the same cast that is aging. The Rangers are only the second team in NHL history to win as many as eight rounds in a four-year period without a Cup to show for it — the 1988-91 Bruins won nine and the overlapping 1989-92 B’s took eight, and look what it got them when Boston won two rounds over the next 15 tournaments — and even if the window isn’t necessarily closing on the franchise or on its coach, it is surely closing on this core group.
The Rangers did not play well enough for long enough stretches to engender confidence this is the year this core will get it done. Truth is, there is little other than faith to stimulate belief this team will be able to turn it on now that it counts; little reason to believe this team is as good as the ones that preceded it and fell short.
These are not the 2000 Yankees, who wobbled their way into the playoffs with 87 wins and the majors’ ninth-best record and then won the World Series. The 2000 Yankees were two-time defending champions who had won three times in the previous four years.
These Rangers haven’t won at all. They have pedigree but not a championship one. Doesn’t make them bad guys, doesn’t mean they’ve been a bad team — on the contrary — but their history only goes so far. However far they go this time, it will be the last time they take the trip together.
If there’s an edge here for the Rangers to exploit it is this one in which Henrik Lundqvist has limited the Penguins to one goal, seven times in going 7-1 with a 1.34 GAA and .954 save percentage over the last eight playoff games dating back to Game 5 of 2014 while outdoing Marc-Andre Fleury in the most critical moments included in five 2-1 victories. The King did buckle toward the end of the year (4-5-3/3.36/.903) over his final 13 starts but cherishes the challenge of facing Sidney Crosby and his high-end teammates. Expect the Penguins to crash the net and attempt to upset Lundqvist every chance they get.
Fleury has been skating in the pre-playoff practices but his health is unknown following the March 30 concussion that sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. Estimable back-up Matt Murray suffered a head injury in the season finale and is likely unavailable for the start of the series. The No. 3 who may be in nets for the opener is Jeff Zatkoff.
The Rangers haven’t been able to make the defense-to-offense transition with the proficiency that created the club’s identity as a speed team the last two playoffs. Cause and effect? Way too much time spent in the club’s own zone; way too much time chasing the puck; way too many times the front of the net left wide open.
Ryan McDonagh’s absence certainly will be felt, but it can be mitigated if Dan Girardi is able to turn back the clock pairing with Marc Staal in a matchup situation most likely against the Sidney Crosby-Chris Kunitz-Patric Hornqvist unit.
Much will be asked of Keith Yandle, who will team with Kevin Klein against the jet-propelled Phil Kessel-Carl Hagelin second-line combo. And Brady Skjei will get his minutes on the third pair with Dan Boyle, who may be in the final playoffs of a borderline Hall of Fame career, and who will be employed as often as possible by Vigneault in offensive-zone situations.
Kris Letang’s return to the height of his powers after several years of injuries and concussion recoveries changes the dynamic on the Pittsburgh blue line. His ability to join the attack and retrieve pucks adds an element few teams possess. Trevor Daley has been a puck-moving weapon since his acquisition from the Blackhawks, with the rest of the group difficult to play against in the dirty areas.
It appears as if the Blueshirts will go into the series with the J.T. Miller-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello unit that was intact only once in the final 16 games of the regular season. The line that has its defensive issues must create offensively in order to remain together, but this is Big Game Brass’ time of year.
Rick Nash, who will skate with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider on the Rangers’ top matchup line, simply has to be more productive than he has been in three previous playoffs with the club in which he has recorded nine goals in 56 games. Eric Staal will start on left wing on the third line, but if things don’t go well early in the series, expect Vigneault to find a way to get the former Candy Cane into the top six. You can’t lose in a first round with the prize deadline acquisition on the third line. Dom Moore, between Tanner Glass and Viktor Stalberg on a fourth line that should see meaningful time, always elevates in the playoffs.
Sidney Crosby has found his game and his aura, but No. 87 — who always gets a rough ride from Marc Staal — only scored goals in two of the 12 playoff games between the clubs the last two years. Hornqvist and Kunitz will be in front. Hagelin will put enormous forecheck pressure on Ranger defensemen with Kessel always lurking to scoop up loose change. The Pens’ bottom six including a revived Matt Cullen plus Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Beau Bennett and Tom Kuhnhackl gave the Rangers fits in March with its ability to skate.
Evgeni Malkin — who went without a point in last year’s first round — has been sidelined since March 11 with an upper body injury and won’t start the series.
The Rangers’ first unit produced the club’s final 15 power-play goals and 17-of-20 after the Christmas break. The penalty-kill unit, a liability most of the year, was less of one down the stretch.
Letang, Crosby, Kunitz, Hornqvist, Kessel. Weapons in abundance for the Pittsburgh power play. Hagelin will be dangerous killing on a unit that pressures the puck.
Alain Vigneault, who has done everything behind an NHL bench other than win the Cup, never wavered in his personality or approach through this roller-coaster season. He’s a known quantity.
Mike Sullivan, the former New York assistant who replaced Mike Johnston early in the season, has his team playing up-tempo, puck-pressure, defensively responsible hockey. And Crosby seems happy, which probably goes back to the coach.
The Rangers may not have enough in the tank to go the distance but they’re a dangerous and accomplished group that should be able to raise its level of play against an opponent it is accustomed to beating.
Rangers in six