Rangers and Pens set for Game 1, Fleury out

Henrik save

We Meet Again: Henrik Lundqvist and Sidney Crosby get ready to do battle for a third straight postseason starting tonight. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Tonight, the battle begins. For a third consecutive year, the Rangers and Pens will meet in the postseason. Recent history is on the Rangers’ side having won the last two. What does it mean? Only the Pens have the answer on whether it’s still in the back of their minds despite taking the final three meetings of the season series.

These teams are very different from a year ago. Both have key stars out. The Pens are without Evgeni Malkin and the Rangers are minus Ryan McDonagh. Injuries have been rampant throughout the league which means banged up players participating and incomplete rosters such as the Lightning hoping others step up. That is the nature of the beast.

One player the Pens thought they were getting back was starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Scratch that. He will not play in Game 1. Instead, it’ll be third stringer Jeff Zatkoff, who hasn’t started since mid-February. That definitely throws a wrinkle into things. What happens if the Pens lose? When is Fleury returning? Or are they just being extra cautious? Probably. No Fleury hurts the Pens. But the Rangers must take advantage by getting to Zatkoff. No excuse.

A player the Pens could have is defenseman Olli Maatta, who is a very underrated defensive blue liner who can skate and play a strong possession game. He is a “game-time” decision. Assuming Maatta plays, that definitely is a boost to the Pens’ blue line. Norris candidate Kris Letang is the anchor who coach Mike Sullivan will double shift whenever he can in an attempt to dictate the match-ups. Trevor Daley has been really good since coming over from Chicago for Rob Scuderi. That was a smart move by GM Jim Rutherford. Daley is a solid skater who can contribute offensively. The Pens’ final three would consist of Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole and Justin Schultz, who they acquired from the Oilers. Brian Dumoulin is a steady presence. He played 79 games. So, maybe he starts over Cole. Derrick Pouliot remains a big part of the team’s future.

While most of the attention will be on the Pens’ top two lines featuring Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and old friend Carl Hagelin, do not forget that their secondary scoring is improved. Matt Cullen has scored big goals and has plenty of experience. Speedsters Connor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl all are capable. Eric Fehr is a solid checking center who plays penalty kill and is dangerous leading them with four shorthanded goals. As a team, the Pens totaled 10 compared to the Rangers’ 3- all scored by Derek Stepan. Cullen also had three.

Special teams favor Pittsburgh in this series. Their penalty kill was the fifth best this season. The Rangers were one of the worst ranking 26th. They did show improvement near the end. But without key penalty killer and minutes leader McDonagh, it remains problematic. Especially against a Pens’ unit featuring Crosby, Letang, Kessel along with net presence Hornqvist and Kunitz. Ironically, their power play was actually worse than the Rangers finishing 16th. The Blueshirts were 14th with each rival clicking at over 18 percent.

If there’s an area the Rangers could take advantage of, it’s on their improved man-advantage. Since Keith Yandle was added to the top unit along with net presence Chris Kreider, it’s been much better. While they still have a tendency to hold onto the puck and get cute, the possession and passing of a five-man unit that features Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello along with Yandle and Kreider leads to good chances. They must be careful of the Pens’ aggressiveness. That means quick decisions and smart puck management.

Most of the concern is about the back end minus McDonagh. Coach Alain Vigneault plans to match Marc Staal and Dan Girardi against the Crosby line. Girardi has struggled with consistency all season, playing through injury at less than 100 percent. His skating and decision making isn’t the same. If he has issues, Vigneault and assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson must be quick to adjust. They can’t allow Girardi’s mistakes to cost them. Staal was better down the stretch resembling the shutdown defenseman he once was with increased minutes without McDonagh. He’s always been able to step up in a bigger role.

Yandle will be leaned on with Kevin Klein to defend against the dangerous Pens’ speed line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel. They were Pittsburgh’s best line the final month. A crazy thing to say when Crosby lit it up. I can’t understate the importance of Yandle and Klein in this series. They really must perform well. It’s imperative for the Rangers to advance.

Brady Skjei gets thrown under the spotlight on the third pair with Dan Boyle, whose play improved in the second half. Skjei will make his playoff debut at 8 PM. He says he’s ready for it. He definitely has the size and skating to perform. It will still be a lot of pressure on a 22-year old kid in his first pro year. Boyle wound up leading the Blueshirts with 10 goals from the back end. He definitely stepped up. He will battle but doesn’t always make the best decisions. If Girardi slips, I would strongly consider moving Boyle up and keeping Yandle with Klein.

Dylan McIlrath remains the odd man out. Despite his size and strength which could be helpful, Vigneault doesn’t trust him. He remains loyal to his soldiers. If Girardi really struggles, the coach might face a tough decision with the proud vet. McIlrath will clear the crease and plays with the edge the D has lacked. He better consider it if it comes down to winning or losing.

The Rangers’ strength is their improved depth up front. With the addition of Eric Staal, they now possess three lines that are capable of scoring. While Staal didn’t produce a whole lot after coming over from Carolina, there’s no doubting the chemistry he has with Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast. They really are good below the dots on the cycle and generate quality chances. I believe they’re one of the keys to the series.

Nobody played better than Stepan down the stretch. He put up 14 points (8-6-14) in a nine-game stretch. The difference is he’s finishing. He turned around his season following a disappointing first half. Stepan is the one two-way center who makes smart plays in the neutral zone that can cause odd-man rushes. If he’s on with Kreider, who is playing his best hockey of his career, that could be huge. Maybe they can wake the beast up in Rick Nash, whose timing has been off since returning from his leg injury. Nash is always a key player. He can turn the series.

Brassard and Zuccarello are reunited with J.T. Miller, who is my x-factor. Miller plays with edge and can force turnovers with his aggressiveness. He can also make mind boggling decisions with and without the puck at inopportune moments. Let’s hop they get the J.T. who scored a career high 22 goals and tied Kreider in points (43). As for Brassard and Zuccarello, they’ll need to perform better on the road while not forgetting their defensive assignments.

A final thought. Dominic Moore always steps up in these spots. He drove Crosby crazy the last two years. I have to think Vigneault will try to get Moore out versus him for some shifts. But he must manage it and not allow Sullivan to dictate the match-ups by getting his top line against the fourth line in the Rangers’ end. Moore has good chemistry with Tanner Glass and Viktor Stalberg. They must fore-check and finish checks cleanly.

Oscar Lindberg basically is getting the McIlrath treatment from Vigneault. He’s definitely capable of jumping in and playing a possession game. But it all depends how the series goes. Side related. The Rangers recalled Marek Hrivik from Hartford following their morning game. It’s just in case Stalberg can’t go. But why would they trust him over Lindberg?

Henrik Lundqvist remains this team’s biggest edge. It’s no secret he struggled down the stretch due in large part to the decline of the defense which has included forwards forgetting their assignments. There have been too many instances where the front of the net was exposed leaving Lundqvist to fend for himself. He can’t do it alone. Yes. He’ll have to be brilliant. But if the Rangers continue to have two men go to one player and vacate the net, they’re doomed. They can’t win if that happens.

Anyway, it should be a electrifying series. I expect it to be long with lots of plot twists. It’s no secret that I don’t have as much confidence in this team. They’ve been consistently inconsistent. However, they are a proven group who knows what it takes. It will come down to execution.

Series Prediction: Pens in 7

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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