By Sean Hartnett
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For a third year in a row, the Rangers will meet the rival Penguins on the playoff stage. The blood feud will resume on Wednesday, with Consol Energy Center hosting Games 1 and 2 before the series shifts to MSG next Tuesday.
The full series schedule is a work in progress, but here’s how things look right now:
Game 1 at Pittsburgh – Wednesday, 8 p.m.
Game 2 at Pittsburgh – Saturday, 3 p.m.
Game 3 at MSG – April 19, 7 p.m.
Game 4 at MSG, April 21, TBD.
* Game 5 at Pittsburgh, April 23, TBD.
* Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, April 25, TBD.
* Game 7 at Pittsburgh, April 27, TBD.
(* if necessary)
The Rangers made quick work of the Pens in the first round a year ago, defeating Pittsburgh in five games. Don’t expect a repeat this time around. Carl Hagelin, who scored the series-ending goal in overtime last spring, is now wearing black and gold and will be a central figure in this matchup.
Guided by former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan, the rejuvenated Penguins went 33-16-5 after he replaced Mike Johnston. The Pens enter the playoffs on quite a roll, closing out the season by winning 14 of 16 games.
Sullivan rekindled the Penguins’ speed and swagger. They’re a totally different team than the group that was 28th in the NHL in scoring when Johnston was relieved of his duties.
“What I love about our team is we’ve been down in games and we don’t get rattled,” Sullivan said after defeating the Rangers at MSG on March 27. “We just keep playing. This team has grown so much over the past three months, where we don’t let the different ebbs and flows and the adversities of the game affect us.”
Given the additions of speedy Hagelin and Phil Kessel, the Pens have the ability to cause all kinds of havoc. The duo tormented the Rangers at the Garden in late March, making the Blueshirts often look flat-footed.
Even without Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh boasts a strong top-six forward group. The Pens produced a league-best 3.24 goals per game under Sullivan’s watch, and surged through the end of the regular season despite contending with injuries to all of their forward lines.
Health will play a tremendous factor in the outcome of this series. For the Pens, No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre’s Fleury’s status for the series opener is in question. He has been out with a concussion since March 30. Meanwhile, stellar backup Matt Murray left Saturday’s game with a head injury. If neither is ready for Game 1, Jeff Zatkoff will get the call.
The Rangers went 1-2-1 against the Penguins this season. With captain Ryan McDonagh likely to miss the early portion of the series, the Rangers will need Kevin Klein, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal to be at their shutdown best.
For much of the season, the Rangers struggled with consistency in their own end, but the Pens also have a lot to prove in this area. The absence of key defenseman Olli Maatta could force the spotlight on a shaky core. Kris Letang is an extremely dangerous figure, having enjoyed a 67-point Norris Trophy-caliber season.
A big difference-maker in this series could be Keith Yandle. The 29-year-old defenseman became the first Ranger to record 40 assists in a season since franchise legend Brian Leetch did so in 2001-02. Alongside Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban, Yandle is one of three defensemen to post 40 assists in each of the last three seasons.
The Rangers see themselves as a team on the upswing heading into the playoffs. Alternate captain Derek Stepan caught fire down the final stretch, collecting 15 points, including nine assists, in the last 10 games. Powerful winger Chris Kreider closed out the regular season with nine points over the final eight contests.
“I think our group has played better the last two weeks of the season,” Stepan said. “We played a really good brand of hockey and we wanted to keep that. We didn’t want to take our foot off the gas pedal, so to say. To be able to go out and get a ‘W’ in the last game, it’s good for our group to get some confidence rolling and now we are excited for some playoff hockey.”
If the Rangers are going to get past the Pens, star winger Rick Nash will need to step up his play. He enters the playoffs pointless in five games. Since joining the Blueshirts in 2012, Nash has recorded 29 points in 56 postseason games. Last spring was a leap forward as he notched 14 points in 19 postseason games after fizzling the previous two playoff campaigns.
More than anything else, the Rangers hopes of advancing rest on the capable shoulders on Henrik Lundqvist, who has shown time after time that he can carry this team on his back and handle the fiercest of pressure.
Check back for a full series preview later this week.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey