By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers and Penguins are Metropolitan Division rivals with the same goal in mind.
Wednesday’s clash at Consol Energy Center will be the first of four remaining meetings between the clubs. With eight points up for grabs, the Blueshirts’ road to the playoffs could very well go through Pittsburgh.
Every point is going to be precious given the competition in the Eastern Conference. Beneath the Metro-leading Washington Capitals, four teams, including the Rangers and Pens, are separated by just four points. Over in the Atlantic Division, five teams trailing the division-leading Florida Panthers are separated by six points.
Only three teams in each division gain automatic entry to the playoffs, so you don’t want to be sitting on the outside looking in and stuck in the ever-perilous wild card chase.
The Rangers have coped well without star winger Rick Nash and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, neither of whom will dress in Pittsburgh. Having secured a 2-1 victory over rival Devils on Monday, the Rangers enter Wednesday’s game the owners of a three-game winning streak for the first time since Nov. 15. Led by the J.T. Miller-Derick Brassard-Jesper Fast line, their aggressive forechecking forced the Devils into a catalog of mistakes.
A whole different challenge will present itself in the form of the Pens, who have won six of their last seven. Even without star forward Evgeni Malkin (undisclosed lower-body injury), all-world captain Sidney Crosby is in the midst of career-best, seven-game goal-scoring streak and former Ranger Carl Hagelin has six points (one goal, five assists) since coming over in a trade from Anaheim on Jan. 16.
“We are definitely going to be tested on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, so we will see how we respond there,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said.
Here’s a few things to watch for when the teams drop the puck in “The Burgh”:
BRASSARD IS A PENS KILLER
Brassard has collected nine points, including six assists, and is a plus-10 over the last five games, and leads the Rangers with 40 points this season.
He has been at his best in big games throughout his Rangers career. Since joining the club in April 2013, Brassard has recorded 13 points in 10 regular season games against the Pens, and has at least one point in the last eight meetings. Including the playoffs, Brassard has at least one point in 10 of his last 12 games against Pittsburgh.
The Miller-Brassard-Fast line has accounted for 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) over the past seven games overall, with every member of the line recording at least six points.
Former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan has the Pens playing some excellent and eye-catching hockey, a stark contrast to the hard times the team went through during the final months under Mike Johnston.
Sullivan has ripped up Johnston’s complicated zone-switching system and gotten rid of shelling tendencies. The Penguins are playing to their strengths, displaying an uptempo style and generating greater offensive zone time, which, as a result, has increased the number of scoring chances.
Crosby has been playing electrifying hockey under Sullivan’s watch, collecting 34 points in 23 games. Sullivan and Hagelin worked together for years with the Rangers and they’re enjoying a thriving reunion in Pittsburgh. Hagelin brings an added speed boost, playing alongside the lightning-fast Phil Kessel. Even with Matt Cullen centering instead of Malkin, that’s a scary line.
WILL THE RANGERS’ POWER PLAY WAKE UP?
The Rangers are playing strong five-on-five hockey and are winning in spite of their power play. They finished 0-for-5 against the Devils on Monday and are a stunning 2-for-49 over their last 17 games.
Despite the problems, Vigneault said he sees some positives.
“You guys might not believe it, but I thought the power play had some real, good looks,” Vigneault said on Monday. “We need a bounce to get a little bit of confidence. We’re gonna keep working at it.”
LUNDQVIST HAS PITTSBURGH’S NUMBER
In his last 10 regular season appearances against Pittsburgh, Henrik Lundqvist has posted a 6-1-3 record with a 2.02 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage, and one shutout.
Lundqvist is 28-19-8 with a 2.40 GAA, a .916 save percentage and three shutouts in 55 career regular season games against the Penguins.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey