How will Blueshirts handle Sidney Crosby & Co in NHL playoffs?

Igor Shesterkin/Chris Kreider/Sidney Crosby/Jake Guentzel Treated Image

After totaling 110 points with a 52-24-6 record this season, the Rangers are back in the playoffs. They’re primed to make a run with a deep roster and clear team chemistry that has been spearheaded by head coach Gerard Gallant in his first year at the helm.

Their first matchup? Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have experience making Stanley Cup runs. The Pens tallied 103 points on the year while posting a 46-25-11 record.

With Game 1 set for Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, here’s everything you need to know about this matchup and a final prediction for who will make it to the second round:

Tale of the Tape

The Rangers and Penguins have met each other four times this season, as both teams played in the Metro Division. And well, it was basically all Rangers.

Pittsburgh took one of those games 1-0 back on Feb. 26, but the Blueshirts have owned them since: 5-1 on March 25, 3-2 on March 29, 3-0 on April 7.

“The biggest takeaway is recognizing that they’re a real good hockey team,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “They’ve got a lot of team speed. Their power play is really dangerous. They’ve got a terrific goaltending. They’re a deep team.”

But the Rangers also know that the regular season series doesn’t matter now. It’s 0-0 for everyone and the Penguins have the veteran playoff pedigree that is always an advantage.

New York is young, but they do have Chris Kreider — the 52-goal scorer this season — who was there in 2016 when these two teams faced off against each other in the playoffs. His leadership will be key.

Igor, Igor, Igor

He’s been the man for them all season long, cementing himself as not just the Rangers’ franchise goaltender but arguably the best in the NHL.

Igor Shesterkin owned a .935 save percentage and 2.07 goals against average, the best in each category around the league, in 53 games during the regular season. And in those games, the Rangers went 36-13-4.

Shesterskin played in all four of those games against the Penguins, and one of them was a shutout in that last matchup of the regular season. He owned a .960 save percentage (97-101) through those four games.

It goes without saying that Shesterkin is the anchor of this Rangers squad, and hockey fans know that elite goaltending can be the difference in any game during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Say what you want about the other units the Blueshirts have, but Gallant and the rest of the team know that as Shesterkin goes, the rest of the team follows.

Capitalize on Power Play

Rangers fans already know how crucial the power play has been this season, and the stats don’t lie.

New York had the fourth-ranked power play during the regular season, scoring 25.23 percent of the time (55 total goals).

Even more important, three Rangers landed in the top 12 in power play points. Artemi Panarin tallied 37 to be tied for sixth, Kreider was tied for ninth with 36, and Adam Fox came in 12th with 33.

Taking advantage of these moments is always critical in a game, but even moreso when a lot of the Rangers’ production comes from these penalties. Gallant’s squad doesn’t need to be reminded of that, though. They know how to take the man advantage and capitalize.

That said, the Rangers only had one power play goal against the Pens this season, as Pittsburgh had the third-best penalty kill of any team at 84.43 percent.

Apr 7, 2022;  New York, New York, USA;  New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin (10) fights for the puck against Pittsburgh Penguins center Jeff Carter (77) and center Teddy Blueger (53) during the first period at Madison Square Garden.  Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 7, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin (10) fights for the puck against Pittsburgh Penguins center Jeff Carter (77) and center Teddy Blueger (53) during the first period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Final Prediction: Rangers in 6

The Blueshirts owned the season series, and the reason was because of what Sullivan mentioned before: Speed. Pittsburgh is more methodical with their approach on the ice, while the Rangers are very much in your face, forechecking heavy and just getting pucks on net. It’s resulted in dirty goals from Kreider on second and third chances, and when they’re leading, it’s hard not to get worn down and demoralized.

With Tristan Jarry out for Pittsburgh, Casey DeSmith is going to have to start in net — and he hasn’t gotten a single start against the Rangers this season. That’s a clear advantage for New York, as DeSmith has a 2.79 GAA and .914 save percentage.

There’s a chance this series is over in five games (dare I wonder about a sweep too?), but I’ll give Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and the other veterans on the Pens the respect they deserve. They know how to win these gritty boots, so I don’t expect the Rangers to waltz into the next round.

But I also respect the work they’ve done against this group this season as well as Gallant’s playoff knowledge (he took the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season). The Rangers should handle home ice well and use that momentum to get the series win.

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