Rangers prepare for rematch with Penguins

To the surprise of no one, the Rangers will be taking on the Penguins in a first round rematch. Once the Islanders sat half their lineup and removed Thomas Greiss after the first, it was obvious that they preferred to finish a point behind the Rangers and stay in the first wildcard where they’ll draw the Panthers.

What it means is a third consecutive year the Rangers and Pens are meeting in the NHL playoffs. In 2014, it was the Rangers who rallied around Martin St. Louis following the death of his Mom France, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Pens and advance to the Eastern Conference Final. They met again a round earlier with the Blueshirts prevailing in a tightly contested five games, winning the final two in overtime including Carl Hagelin’s series clincher at MSG. Now, he’s on the other side.

Hagelin has been a big part of the Pens’ revival. After they acquired him from Anaheim, the Pens played much better hockey down the stretch. At one point, they won 14 of 15 also reeling off eight straight to pass the Islanders and Rangers in the Metropolitan Division finishing second and gaining home ice for the first round. In 37 games with the Pens, Hagelin returned to form tallying 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points with a plus-18 rating. Most astonishing is that of his 10 goals, six were game-winners. A new career high. His previous best was five with the Rangers in ’13-14.

A year ago, Carl Hagelin was the overtime hero for the Rangers eliminating the Pens in five. In the series rematch, he's on the opposite side. AP Photo by Julie Jacobson/Getty Images

A year ago, Carl Hagelin was the overtime hero for the Rangers eliminating the Pens in five. In the series rematch, he’s on the opposite side.
AP Photo by Julie Jacobson/Getty Images

He is playing in a more offensive role on Pittsburgh’s second line. Hagelin has formed unreal chemistry with Phil Kessel, who finished strong with 26 goals. That included five over a five-game stretch along with a five point effort in a win. Remarkably, it’s Nick Bonino who they did it with. Bonino finished the season on fire with 13 points (4-9-13) in the final nine games.

Another player who’s played a key role is savvy vet Matt Cullen. Signed for depth, the 39-year old veteran pivot had a good season scoring 16 goals with 16 assists in a third line role. Similar to the Pens’ cohesive second unit, most of it’s come since coach Mike Sullivan took over.

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby, right, and New York Rangers' Derek Stepan react after Crosby scored the game winning goal during the overtime period of the NHL hockey game, Sunday, March 27, 2016, in New York. The Penguins defeated the Rangers 3-2. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Pens’ superstar Sidney Crosby has been on fire finishing with 44 points in the last 33 games and again reclaim his spot as the game’s best player. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Coincidentally, Sidney Crosby took off after Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston. In February and March, the Penguin captain totaled 15 goals and 24 assists with a plus-22 rating. In four contests in April, he had four goals and a helper before sitting out the season finale against the Flyers. That means that Crosby had 44 points (19-25-44) over his final 33 games. If you go back even further, it’s 58 since the new calendar year. The huge finish propelled Crosby to third in scoring with 85 points (36-49-85) and into the Hart race.

Crosby has always had great chemistry with Chris Kunitz, who doesn’t score as much but had 40 points with a team best plus-29 rating. Kunitz likes to spend time in front of the net as does pesky line mate Patric Hornqvist (22-29-51). It should be quite a battle in front of Henrik Lundqvist’s net with defensemen Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Keith Yandle.

Kris Letang also is playing the best hockey of his career. The superb skating high scoring defenseman achieved personal bests in goals (16), assists (51) and points (67) in just 71 contests. That also included a new high of 27 power play points (5-22-27). How hot is he? Try an eight-game point streak in which he amassed two goals and 10 helpers before sitting out at Philly.

The only concern for Pittsburgh is goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t played since Mar. 31 due to a concussion. He had a great season winning 35 games with a 2.29 goals-against-average and five shutouts. Rookie Matt Murray left Saturday’s loss after taking contact to the head. He was superb for the Pens going 9-2-1 with a 2.00 GAA, .930 save percentage and one shutout. If either he or Fleury can’t go at the start of the series on Wednesday, then it’ll fall to third stringer Jeff Zatkoff. That would be dicey.

Both teams are dealing with injuries to key personnel. Coach Alain Vigneault has already indicated that captain Ryan McDonagh is day to day and will “definitely not start.” The anchor of the blue line suffered a broken right hand after blocking a Brandon Dubinsky shot in a win at Columbus. His situation remains uncertain for the series.

Without him, it’ll fall on Staal, Girardi, Klein and Yandle to step up along with Dan Boyle. Girardi practiced. He missed the final two games after taking a shove from Brian Boyle that sent him crashing into the boards. Considering that he’s played through a crack in his right knee and now the “upper body” injury, there’s no way he’ll be at 100 percent. The bumps and bruises have effected his skating and decision making. Opponents know they can use their speed to get by him and force turnovers. The Pens are a very fast skating team with a strong fore-check. A match-up that could be problematic.

Vigneault is loyal to his vets. So, the chances of seeing rookie Dylan McIlrath are about the same as Oscar Lindberg. Even with the bigger, stronger defenseman proving capable, he’s likely to be the subject of frustration from fans on social media. With McIlrath, the Rangers boast a tough D who can clear the crease and plays with an edge. At some point, Vigneault might face a tough decision with Girardi. Does he have the guts to sit a warrior if it gives the team a better chance?

One young defenseman who will play is Brady Skjei. A superb skating and puck moving blue liner who has the game the coach prefers, the 22-year old former 2012 first round pick is a left-handed D who is needed with McDonagh out. He won’t be leaned on the way Staal and Yandle will be but is on the third pair. Vigneault hasn’t been afraid to use him. It’ll be interesting to see how he and assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson deploy Skjei in this series.

New York Rangers' Derek Stepan (21) encourages goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) as goalie Antti Raanta (32) replaces Lundqvist during the second period of the Rangers' NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, April 2, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

It’s been a challenging season for Henrik Lundqvist, who still won 35 games on a more flawed roster. He must be at his best against the Pens. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Henrik Lundqvist startled the press by going off and on and then finally back off again today. Even Swedish Kings can have the yips. As long as he’s ready Wednesday, nobody should care. In the even he isn’t, it will fall to steady backup Antti Raanta, who actually played better down the stretch than Lundqvist. That said, the team’s hopes rely on Lundqvist, who faced more shots (29.9 average) than at any other point in his career. His GAA slipped to 2.48 but was still a respectable .920 stopping the puck with 35 wins.

The question is did all the shots and minutes finally get to him. Lundqvist has looked worn down at times. He still got most of the starts getting 64 of 82. He was pulled seven times including an alarming three his final nine appearances. That was a reflection of how egregious the team has played in front of him. This isn’t as efficient a group. Blown assignments have led to more shots allowed and an increase in dangerous chances. The Rangers need Lundqvist to be at his absolute best. That also means more commitment from teammates, who haven’t been as consistent defensively.

Zucc's Back: A happy Mats Zuccarello gets congrats from Derick Brassard for one of his two goals in the Rangers' 5-4 win over the Leafs.  The Canadian Press by Frank Gunn

Mats Zuccarello led the Rangers in scoring with 61 points while teammate Derick Brassard paced them with 27 goals. 
The Canadian Press by Frank Gunn

Unlike Crosby who is the Pens’ headliner, the Rangers do it with scoring balance. Steven McDonald Award winner Mats Zuccarello led the team in scoring with career bests in goals (26) and points (61). He only missed one game sitting out Saturday’s finale against Detroit. It was a year ago in Game 5 that he took a McDonagh shot to the head suffering a scary injury which was later revealed as a brain contusion and small fracture in his head which even caused him to lose his ability to speak. It’s amazing that he made a full recovery with help from a speech therapist.

Derick Brassard paced the club with 27 goals and totaled 58 points. He’s been a much better performer at home getting 20 of his 27 markers and 41 of his 58 points at MSG where match-ups are more favorable. That means he only totaled 17 points on the road. He’ll no doubt have to be better at Pittsburgh. Brassard will at least start with Zuccarello and the team’s most improved player J.T. Miller, who set new highs in goals (22), assists (21), points (43) while tying with Brassard and Derek Stepan for the team lead in game-winners (5).

New York Rangers' Derek Stepan, left, is congratulated on his goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets by teammates Marc Staal, center, and Dan Girardi during the third period of an NHL hockey game Monday, April 4, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. The Rangers beat the Blue Jackets 4-2. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Derek Stepan is playing his best hockey with 14 points the final 10 games entering the tournament. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Stepan played his best hockey down the stretch totaling 14 points (6-8-14) in the final 10. Always counted upon this time of year, he and Chris Kreider enter the postseason hot. Stepan (22 goals) and Kreider (21) are two of five Blueshirts who recorded 20-or-more. Rick Nash did not. He only had 15 in 60 games and went without a point the final five. Interestingly, he finds himself with Stepan and Kreider, apart from Brassard. We’ll see how long that lasts. Nash really hasn’t been the same since the injury to his left leg that sidelined him six weeks. The Ranger offense is much better when Nash is dangerous and able to find the back of the net.

Eric Staal was out with Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast. So, he’s good to go which is encouraging after leaving Saturday’s match after Fast accidentally hit him in the head. Staal only tallied three goals and three assists in 20 games following the trade from Carolina. However, there’s clearly chemistry with Hayes and Fast with the trio very formidable on the cycle. Look for them to play a key role if the Rangers are to prevail.

Vigneault is sticking with the hard working fourth line of Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg. It’s no surprise. Especially considering their work ethic. They have been solid since being put together. As long as he sticks to playing more of a possession style and stays away from bad penalties like the rare hit from behind that got him tossed against Tampa Bay, Glass isn’t a liability. That line has played classic meat and potatoes hockey. They have generated scoring chances. Stick to the formula.

As for Lindberg, it’s a shame to see him wasted. But that’s what the coach prefers. There’s no question Lindberg can go in for Glass if necessary. He brings size and more skating with the ability to contribute more offense. It’s an argument for another day.

In the next post, we’ll delve more into the match-ups and make a series prediction.

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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