These two teams know each other well. After meeting 16 times from 05 to 07, the Penguins and the Rangers again played 8 more regular season tilts this year. The Rangers took 10 out of a possible 16 points with a 5-3 record, while Pittsburgh grabbed 8 points from going 3-3-2 against the Blueshirts.
The Penguins were a squad that saw two of their feature performers miss extended time due to injury. Both Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury suffered high ankle sprains that caused them to miss over two months of action. However, Evgeni Malkin and Ty Conklin stepped up and filled those vacant roles admirably; Malkin finished the year 2nd in the league in scoring with 106 points, while Conklin won an impressive 9 straight starts and posted a 17-6-5 record as the starter in Fleury's absence.
The Rangers got off to a slow start on the scoresheet, but Henrik Lundqvist and a commitment to team defense kept them in the playoff picture. Toward the middle of the season, Lundqvist started to lose consistency and the Rangers stumbled. Much like 2007, however, New York rebounded in February and made a strong push toward the playoffs. The scoring started to come from veterans Chris Drury and Jaromir Jagr as the team went on a 13 game-points streak (10-0-3) from February 9 to March 10. A 5-3-4 record over the final 12 games was good enough to secure the 5 seed and a matchup with New Jersey in the first round.
The Penguins have been miscategorized by many as a 'run and gun' team. Yes, they have a high powered offense (and they can certainly hold up in a track meet), but their commitment to defense over the last 25-30 games was exceptional. Like the Rangers, the Penguins like to collapse in their own zone and take away the shooting and passing lanes. They can feature an aggressive forecheck, but they usually send one guy in and wait for the opposition to make a mistake at their own blueline or in the neutral zone. Crosby and Malkin are highly skilled and can make the most out of a little bit of space, so this style of play hasn't hampered their ability to score.
The Rangers have also received some scoring as of late from captain Jaromir Jagr and free-agent acquisition Scott Gomez. Both of these guys had a great first round against New Jersey, and Jagr specifically has been heating up since early March. Jagr will see plenty of Hal Gill this series, and a large part of the Rangers success will have to do with how he reacts to both that coverage and the serenade of boo's that will rain down the Penguins faithful every time he touches the puck.
The Rangers must stay out of the box at all costs. While they held the conferences' best penalty kill in the regular season, their PK lacked consistency in the first round against New Jersey. If you're having problems stopping the Devils powerplay (which ranked 14th in the east and 25th overall), you better be wary of what Pittsburgh can do on the man-advantage. Gonchar, Malkin, Crosby, Hossa, Malone, and Sykora can all put the puck in the net and tire the penalty killers through skillful puck movement. Should they end up in the box often, Lundqvist will have to be at his best for the Rangers to have a shot in this series.
Which leads me to the goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury had a great first round against Ottawa, going 4-0 with a 1.26 gaa and a .955 save percentage. As much as I credit Fleury for playing well, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the frailty of the opposing Senators. Ottawa almost missed the playoffs after leading the conference in mid February, fell to the 7 seed to face the Pens. When Alfredsson got injured in the 81st game of the season, the heart and soul of Ottawa's potent attack was crippled and they could never recover.
Fleury will face an offense that has started to click, even so much as to wake up a power play that was nothing short of lethargic during the regular season. The Rangers are playing a solid-defense first transition game, but they're also driving to the net with more frequency. Fleury will be tested and will have to outplay Lundqvist.
Lundqvist was sensational in the Devils series. The goals against line might be misleading, though. After allowing only two goals in the first two games, he let up four in game 3, three in game 4, and three again in game 5. Starting in Game 3, the Devils significantly opened up their play by sending their defensemen deep and pinching on many opportunities. The defense first style that dominated games 1 and 2 gave way to more offense, but that doesn't mean Lundqvist didn't play lights out. After the Devils had tied the score at 3-3 in Game 4, he made two sensational stops on Paul Martin and John Madden to keep the game knotted. In Game 5, he had to stop a penalty shot from John Madden with approximately 7 minutes to go to hold on to a 4-3 lead. With a goalie of any less caliber, the Rangers first round series would have gone much differently.
Rangers youth - I'm not talking about Dubinsky here, as he's proven himself to be a solid #1 center in this league. If Callahan, Dawes, Staal, and Girardi bring their game, New York will have an excellent shot to win the series.
Marc-Andre Fleury - He's going to have to play his best to pull this one off. The Rangers are a better team than Ottawa was in the first round and he'll be tested much more frequently.
Sean Avery - Last year, he shut Keith Tkachuk down in the first round series against Atlanta, but followed up with a disappointing second round performance against Buffalo. Will Pittsburgh be able to both ignore and neutralize him the way the Sabres did last spring? Or will Gary Roberts and Jarko Ruutu take over as the premier agitators of the series?
Prediction - Rangers in 6. This is Lundqvist's third straight trip to the playoffs and he's got a better team in front of him than either of the last two years. The Penguins have a high powered offense, but the shut-down play of the Rangers' team defense combined with their playoff experience will prove to be too much for Pittsburgh to deal with.