By Steve Silverman
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The Rangers warmed to the task in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers.
They followed an age-old hockey formula of jumping out to an early lead and relying on superb goaltending in a seventh game to survive and advance in the NHL postseason. It might have taken a bit longer than it should have, but the Rangers finally vanquished the Flyers.
The Rangers always seem to take seven games in the first round. They needed all seven to beat the Ottawa Senators in 2012 and the same number to edge out the Washington Capitals last spring.
After that victory, they were stopped in their tracks by the Boston Bruins, and the Pittsburgh Penguins would appear to be formidable this time around. But the Penguins are quite beatable and the Rangers appear to have the kind of team that could get in the Penguins’ collective heads and also get the best of them from a physical perspective.
The Penguins have been questioning themselves for the better part of two full years. They have been pushed hard in the playoffs by teams like the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets and were humiliated in losses to Philadelphia and Boston, respectively.
When the Penguins take the ice against the Rangers, they will be carrying those losses with them.
Pittsburgh has several areas that can be exploited and the most notable one is Marc-Andre Fleury in net. He was exposed in the loss to the Flyers in 2012 and he has never been able to put that defeat behind him. He is the exact opposite of goaltenders like Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask and Corey Crawford, who always find a way to digest a bad game, put it away and move on.
Fleury doesn’t do that. When the Penguins were exposed by the Flyers in 2012, they gave up 30 goals in six games, including eight in back-to-back games.
Last spring, Fleury was about to give a repeat performance against the Islanders until Dan Bylsma pulled him and inserted veteran Tomas Vokoun.
After a fine 2013-14 regular season that saw Fleury go 39-18-5 with a 2.37 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage, he should have been ready to roll in the first round. But Fleury played against Columbus as if he expected the walls to fall in. The Penguins survived the series in six games, but Fleury was shaky at best with a 2.81 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
It seemed like Fleury was turning a corner when the Penguins won Game 5 by a 3-1 score and had a 4-0 lead in Game 6. However, it was just an illusion. Fleury surrendered three goals in the final half of the third period and the Blue Jackets could have tied the score at several points. By the end of the game, Fleury looked like a mess.
It’s not just the goaltending. Sidney Crosby may very will win the Hart Trophy (for the first time) after leading the league in scoring with 104 points, but he has not scored a goal in his last 11 postseason games. While he had six assists against Columbus, he could not put one puck behind Sergei Bobrovsky. He didn’t against Rask either during last year’s playoff wipeout and he hasn’t scored since Game 5 of the Penguins’ second-round series against Ottawa last year.
Crosby is certainly capable of turning it around, but he’s not going to. He is stuck in goal-scoring purgatory (somewhere north of Winnipeg). You can see the frustration grow on Crosby with each passing playoff game he does not score.
Crosby is fighting something, and it just may be his career-long reputation. “Sid the Kid” has been a hockey savant since he entered the league as an 18-year-old rookie in 2005-06. He scored 102 points that season and 120 points the following season. He had 184 goals by the end of his fifth season.
Crosby was on his way to being one of the all-time greats. The numbers say he is there, but he is not in the class of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, and he knows it.
He is a great star, but he is not the best of the best, and he will never rank with those three. It seems to bother him, and it shows in his playoff goal totals.
The Penguins’ defense is also soft and yielding. The area behind the net is often wide open. They rarely offer any pushback when opponents have the puck in that area. Look for Marty St. Louis, Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan to take advantage of this tendency.
The Rangers have the speed, aggressiveness and goaltending to get the best of this overrated team, and they will do it in six games.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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