Rangers look to slow down Crosby, Pens

Henrik Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist and Sidney Crosby face off again on Rivalry Night. Getty Images

A while back, the Pens were underachieving. Then they fired coach Mike Johnston and replaced him with former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan, who had been coaching AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

It took some time for them to get on track. Finally, Sidney Crosby is back to being one of the best players in the world. During a stretch that’s seen the Pens win six of their last seven to pull into the second wildcard with 61 points and within four of the second place Rangers, Crosby has been on fire. He carries an seven-game goal streak in which he’s scored 10 goals into tonight’s match on Rivalry Night. He has points in 11 straight games totaling 22 (12-10-22) including a cool dozen (7-5-12) over the last four.

With Crosby back, the Pens are a much more dangerous team. They’ve scored 20 goals over the last five and have been very explosive led by their captain. Even minus Evgeni Malkin, who will miss the next three games with an undisclosed lower body injury, Crosby and top defenseman Kris Letang have carried the Pens back into playoff position. Letang also has been on fire tallying seven points over the last four including the overtime winner from Crosby in a stirring 3-2 comeback overtime win over the Panthers. In fact, he has 15 points (5-10-15) over the past 10- climbing his way back into the Norris conversation.

Somewhat interestingly, the Pens became a lot better after acquiring Carl Hagelin from Anaheim for David Perron, who has also fit in quite well with his new team. Sometimes, a scenery change works. In Hagelin’s case, it was for the best. He struggled to fit in under Bruce Boudreau totaling 12 points (4-8-12) in 43 games. In nine games with Pittsburgh, he has a goal and five helpers. Before Malkin’s injury, Hagelin was fitting in quite well on a line with the lanky Russian and Phil Kessel. Speaking of which, Kessel has had a disappointing first season in the Steel City. With 15 goals in 52 games, more goal production was expected. He has been a bit better lately with 10 points over the last 10 including three goals.

For whatever reason, the Pens couldn’t score under Johnston. Playing for the tougher Sullivan, they are playing their game transitioning more. With their best players hot, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz have seen a hike in production. The pesky Hornqvist who always battles in front of the net has 12 points (2-10-12) over the last 10. Playing with Crosby, Kunitz has had a resurgence with 10 points (3-7-10) in the last six and 12 over the last nine.

The offensive support has made life a lot easier on starter Marc-Andre Fleury. He brings in respectable numbers with 21 wins, a 2.42 goals-against-average, .920 save percentage and four shutouts. For a long time, he was asked to carry the load. But backup Jeff Zatkoff also chipped in with a 42-save performance in a 3-2 win over Florida. He won’t play much down the stretch but that was a big win.

The Rangers have their work cut out. Minus captain Ryan McDonagh, the make shift defense Alain Vigneault and Ulf Samuelsson put together in Monday’s 2-1 win over the Devils will have to contend with a much more explosive offense. My guess is Crosby will be seeing plenty of old nemesis Marc Staal with Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein mixed in. Especially without Malkin. Since they’ll see the Pens three more times in March, it’ll be interesting to see how they plan to slow down Crosby.

With Letang at his absolute best, the Blueshirts must remember to account for him on pinches. He’s like an extra forward on the forecheck. Partner Olli Maatta isn’t as potent offensively but can chip in with six goals. His plus-21 leads all Pens’ defensemen. A solid steady puck moving type, Maatta has a bright future. Only in his third year, he should continue to improve.

The best recipe for success is a strong forecheck. In order to have a chance, the Rangers must use their speed and get pucks deep. The Pens aren’t the best defensive team. They can be exploited. Trevor Daley was a nice pickup from Chicago for Rob Scuderi. He’s good offensively with a big shot. So far, he has four goals and 10 points in 23 games with his new team. However, Daley and other veteran D Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole can be attacked. So can Letang.

It’s up to the Blueshirts’ top three lines to establish a consistent cycle. So far, Chris Kreider has looked better since Mats Zuccarello joined Derek Stepan. Zuccarello’s skill set has allowed Kreider to do what he does best using his speed and size. Stepan always seems to save his best for these kind of games. It’s coming for the two-way pivot who is finally looking 100 percent.

If there’s a line that can do damage, it should be the one centered by Derick Brassard. With the red hot J.T. Miller continuing to emerge as a scorer and tireless forechecker, they should have a good night. Jesper Fast has fit in well. He makes plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Whether it’s outracing someone to negate an icing or winning a board battle by not giving up on a play, Quickie has shown improvement.

The play of Kevin Hayes remains an uncertainty. There are times he does a solid job carrying the puck and protecting it using his size and skill to bring possession. Then there are odd moments like the one on Monday where he got a silly unsportsmanlike conduct for firing a broken Devil stick out of play. Hayes can be a effective player. He and Oscar Lindberg don’t quite fit together because they play the same position. But they are an important part of the team. Along with Viktor Stalberg, that’s your third line. When Nash returns, it’ll be interesting to see what Vigneault decides. Maybe try Nash with Hayes and keep Fast on the top line. Lindberg or Stalberg could move down to the fourth line.

If they’re to win, Henrik Lundqvist will be a big reason. Up to 26 wins and a 2.37 GAA with a .921 save percentage and just two shutouts, he’s looked better recently. Even with the bad goal he allowed to the Flyers, it was his clutch saves in a hectic second period that held the Rangers in. Against the Devils, he withstood an onslaught the final 2:17 following Travis Zajac’s shorthanded goal. The big stop on Lee Stempniak saved the game and got the team a big win. He’ll definitely be under pressure tonight.

The defense played about as well as it could Monday minus McDonagh. How will they hold up against a much better offense featuring Crosby? Obviously, match-ups will be important. Keith Yandle has a bigger role logging the most ice-time the past two games. He was over 25 minutes Monday following 27:33 in an emotional 3-2 shootout comeback win at Philadelphia thanks to his clutch tying goal at 19:47. He also had a hiccups that caused Zajac’s shorty and then turned it over again on the same power play leading to Stempniak’s dangerous chance.

With McDonagh sidelined for an unknown time, it looks like Yandle isn’t going anywhere. He is unrestricted this summer. But right now, there’s no way the Rangers can even consider trading him. They remain with only two left D. To his credit, Dan Boyle shifted to the left side and did a decent job in Newark. Eventually, they have to make a move. And no. I’m not keen on bringing in the recently waived Christian Ehrhoff. If the Kings got rid of him, there must be a reason. Ehrhoff has been on the decline. Remember the Rangers’ last claim? It was Roman Hamrlik. How’d that work out?

For now, Dylan McIlrath stays in the lineup. I still don’t know why Vigneault doesn’t fully trust him. He uses his size effectively pushing players off the puck and clearing the crease. Big Mac also has shown an uncanny ability to make smart pinches and get his lethal shot on goal. I’d like to see him get more than 12-14 minutes.

If they could ever figure it out on the power play, it would be a lot easier to win games. The power play remains a abomination. It’s basically pray they don’t screw up and give one up shorthanded.

Tonight’s game is on NBCSN with a special 8 PM start time. And no. I don’t hate Doc Emrick like the others. I don’t get how anyone can. The guy is all class and is a great listen who makes the game fun. If you can’t like Doc, maybe you need to find a new hobby.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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