By Larry Brooks
April 10, 2016
Sidney Crosby and Henrik Lundqvist (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Regarding the Rangers, coming up on 42 weeks after Game 7 against Tampa Bay, 92 weeks after Game 5 in Los Angeles and 76 playoff games after Game 1 against the Senators in 2012, finally back at the starting line after meandering through 82 mostly uninspired 2015-16 regular-season performances in order to get here:
1. It is the Penguins for a third straight season, the team the Rangers would not attempt to avoid by tanking down the stretch. It is a Penguins team that was likely the best team in hockey in thundering 14-1 down the stretch to capture first-round home ice.
It also is a Penguins team that may not have either of its top two goaltenders ready for Game 1. No. 1 Marc-Andre Fleury has been sidelined with a concussion since March 30. Outstanding backup Matt Murray left Saturday’s game with a head injury. Jeff Zatkoff would be in line for the Game 1 start if Fleury and Murray are unavailable.
And, by the way, with Evgeni Malkin sidelined since March 11 with an upper-body injury, the Rangers and their fans won’t get to play the Ryan McDonagh Red Cross card.
2. If the Rangers had finished well, they would have held onto second place and played Pittsburgh anyway, so no one should blame the Islanders for this.
3. The ghastly Corsi percentage of 47.36 that ranks 26th in the NHL and dead last among playoff qualifiers isn’t the most worrisome number attached to the Blueshirts as they enter the playoffs.
Because while they were one of the NHL’s top five defensive teams in each of the preceding five seasons, the Rangers slipped from third to 16th this year while coming in with a 2.62 goals-against average. It represents their worst finish since 2003-04. Moreover, not since 2009 has a team from outside the top five in GAA won the Cup when the 17th-ranked Penguins turned the trick.
Not only does Alain Vigneault need to quiet the generally chaotic defensive zone, the coach also must decide on his preferred matchups against the formidable Sidney Crosby-Chris Kunitz-Patric Hornqvist unit and the twin-engine jet unit with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel centered by Nick Bonino.
In the final three regular-season games played without McDonagh, whose small fracture of the right hand is expected to sideline the captain for at least the early games of the first round, if not the entire series and beyond, Vigneault used Keith Yandle as his top left-side matchup defenseman. No. 93 played one game with Dan Girardi, the final two with Kevin Klein after No. 5 went down with an injury that should not jeopardize his participation in Game 1.
It was an interesting call from the coach, who both generally had elevated Marc Staal into the top slot on the left in McDonagh’s absences over the last three years while protecting Yandle from that kind of exposure. But it was consistent with the additional responsibility that has been heaped on the pending free agent over the second half of the season.
Now, though, Vigneault may want to reserve Staal and either Klein or Girardi for the Crosby unit — Staal has always given No. 87 a hard ride — while using the better-skating Yandle for the Kessel/Hagelin assignment.
Either way, it will present a challenge. If Yandle — who last year played through a shoulder separation he suffered when slammed into the wall by Blake Comeau early in Game 2 of the opening round against the Penguins — can handle the high-stakes assignment, the conversation regarding his pending free agency would likely change in Rangers boardrooms.
4. Lundqvist hasn’t had a finish like this — 4-5-3/.903/.3.36 over his final 13 starts — since, well, never. Other than his rookie 2005-06, when he was done in by knee and hip injuries and migraine headaches, the franchise goaltender always has elevated his game down the stretch.
But over his last eight playoff games against the Penguins, dating back to Game 5 of the 2014 second round, Lundqvist is 7-1 with a .935 save percentage and a 1.34 GAA while limiting his foes to one goal, seven times. That is the King everyone expects to see this week.
That is the King everyone must see this week in order for the Rangers to have a chance.