Series preview: (1) New York Rangers vs. (4) Pittsburgh Penguins
By PAT PICKENS
(1) New York Rangers vs. (4) Pittsburgh PenguinsSeason series: NYR went 3-0-1
The Penguins are the last team into the Eastern Conference tournament, which is remarkable considering they opened the season 16-5-2 through the first two months. Pittsburgh still has some of the world's most dynamic players in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, David Perron and Chris Kunitz.
Yet, the Rangers proved problematic for the Pens, as the former claimed three of four in the regular season -- and even the Penguins' one win, Nov. 15, was shrouded in controversy. Throw in last season's playoff series, in which the Rangers won the final three games, and the Blueshirts have won six of seven against the Pens.
Sizing up the Pens: Pittsburgh is used to being the hunted in the playoffs but enter this year's tournament as a literal and metaphorical wild card. Despite injuries to defensemen Kris Letang, Olli Maata and Christian Ehrhoff, Pittsburgh is still skilled enough to reach the conference or even Stanley Cup final.
Yet, as in most playoff years, it'll all come down to goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't the reason the Penguins lost in seven games to the Rangers last season, but he has not had a recent stellar past. If he's even average, this will be a short series.
The Rangers report: The Blueshirts are the Presidents' Trophy winner for the first time since 1994 and have been resilient and tenacious all season. They've endured injuries to goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, No. 1 center Derek Stepan, stalwart defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Klein and even playmaking winger Martin St. Louis.
Rick Nash has enjoyed a career year, in which he scored 43 goals and is a candidate for multiple postseason awards. Lundqvist is not only healthy but fresh, a lethal combo that could spell a deep playoff run for the Rangers.
Series X-factor: Depth. The Penguins are as deep on their forward lines as they've been in recent memory. In last season's playoff series with New York, Crosby and Malkin struggled against the Blueshirts' two shutdown defensive pairs, but new general manager Jim Rutherford armed Pittsburgh with skilled wingers -- like Perron, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling and Blake Comeau -- just for this time of the year.
Pittsburgh problem is depth on defense, as the club has been only dressing five defensemen due to injury and salary-cap constraints. There is no salary cap in the playoffs, but some of the Pens blueliners will be thrown directly into the fire. Meanwhile, the Rangers are probably the deepest team in the tournament -- even their backup goaltender is battle-tested. They can beat you with three scoring lines -- they roll four lines -- and six defensemen that can drive play.
Pick: Rangers in six.
This feels like a series in which the Rangers will get tested, and if the Penguins had a full complement of defensemen they could seriously push the Blueshirts, but in the end, Pittsburgh won't have enough.
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