The New York Rangers have no time to dwell on their first-round series victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, not with the Pittsburgh Penguins eagerly awaiting their arrival in Steel City for their first playoff meeting since 2008.
The two Metropolitan Division foes will clash in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Friday. And if bottling up Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, two of the NHL’s most dynamic superstars, isn’t enough of a challenge, the Blueshirts also face the daunting task of what will be an extremely tight turnaround. After requiring all seven games to finish off the Flyers, the Rangers hop right on the team charter to jet off to their next stop as they prepare to play three games in four nights. The Rangers can’t afford for fatigue to be a factor if they want to best the Penguins.
Here are five more keys for New York to win the series:
1. Exploit Depth: A huge facet of the Rangers’ success this season under new coach Alain Vigneault has been the balance they’ve achieved in being able to roll all four lines on any given night. Short shifts and fresh legs become even more critical with the sort of grueling schedule the Rangers have drawn. After playing back-to-back in Games 6 and 7 against Philly, they are due for another set in Games 2 and 3 against the Penguins. Rather than load up his star players with the sort of debilitating workload that can wear guys down as the playoffs progress, Vigneault has been able to shrewdly dole out ice time to keep his entire lineup engaged.
For the sake of argument, if we go ahead and call the Rangers’ trio of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello the team’s third line -- and yes, you can certainly make a case that they deserve better billing -- then that is one hell of a bottom six (along with the fourth line). Pouliot scored the winner in Game 7 for the Rangers, and Zuccarello’s masterful feed to set up Daniel Carcillo on the team’s first goal was the most spectacular play of the night. Add in a gritty, physical and supremely effective fourth line of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett, and you see why the Rangers have gotten those sorts of well-balanced contributions all season long. This is an edge the Rangers have on the top-heavy Penguins. They must exploit that to their advantage.
2. Get Nash Involved: Not to single out Rick Nash again, but it’s hard to ignore. The big man was active in Game 7, leading the team with five shots on goal and doing plenty of good things away from the puck, but he’s got to find his way onto the score sheet. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and 40-goal scorer remains one of the league’s best possession players -- his 62.4 percent Corsi rating is third-best among playoff performers, according to ExtraSkater.com -- but he has yet to find the back of the net for the Rangers in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. That makes it just one goal in 19 postseason games during Nash’s tenure as a Ranger, a worrisome trend -- especially considering he was acquired for a king’s ransom for precisely this time of year. Nash has generated offense and created chances, but his tenacity and willingness to drive the net still leave a lot to be desired. He’s got to go to the dirty areas of the ice for the Rangers to succeed.
3. Contain Crosby: Hopefully, the Rangers were taking notes at the masterful job done by old friend Brandon Dubinsky during the Penguins’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The hardworking, jagged-edged Jackets gave the Penguins all they could handle in a competitive six-game set, and the blue-collar play of Dubinsky was a big reason why. Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards often deployed Dubinsky’s line against Crosby, and the intent to disrupt paid dividends. The odds-on favorite for the 2014 Hart Trophy was held without a goal the entire series. In fact, he has not scored in 11 consecutive playoff games. Keeping him similarly limited would be a monumental coup for the Rangers, especially given the awakening of Malkin on Monday night. Malkin tallied three goals to record a hat trick in the Penguins’ Game 6 victory over the Blue Jackets, the Pens' most commanding and well-rounded game of the series. Though Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh did not have his best showing in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals -- to be fair, he missed the last five games of the regular season with a left shoulder injury -- fellow blueliners Dan Girardi and Marc Staal picked up the slack. The Rangers' sturdy back line did an excellent job neutralizing some of the Flyers' biggest stars, holding Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek to two goals apiece. The Rangers have to aim for the same sort of efficiency against the Penguins’ top guys.
4. Pressure Marc-Andre Fleury: Listen, I know Henrik Lundqvist is earning a reputation as Mr. Game 7, but take a close look at the two goaltenders' numbers and they are actually not so different. Though Fleury became unhinged with a couple of cringe-worthy mistakes in Game 4 that proved costly, he has otherwise been pretty darn good for Pittsburgh, both in the regular season and the playoffs this year. In fact, though Lundqvist has the leg up in goals-against this postseason, boasting 2.11 goals per game compared to Fleury’s still-solid 2.81, Fleury actually has a minute edge in even-strength save percentage (.943 compared to Lundqvist’s .940). Still, the Rangers know some lingering doubt remains after Fleury’s utter implosion last spring, and they have to try to rattle him accordingly. The Rangers derive so much confidence from Lundqvist’s steadiness in net, and he hasn’t even played his best hockey yet. Do the Penguins have that same level of assuredness in Fleury? If the Rangers want to win this series, they’ll have to force this question early and often.
5. Strong Special Teams: Nothing new here. All the time, special teams are labeled as the defining factor in a series. This matchup is no different. Once again, the Rangers power-play woes have resurfaced with a spirit-sapping slump that has persisted since their first game against the Flyers. Though the Rangers have been excellent at even strength, the team has failed to capitalize on 22 straight power-play attempts and is 3-for-29 overall this postseason. Ouch. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has posted a solid 20.7 percent success rate in these playoffs, though the unit boasts some of their most talented offensive weapons. Make the mistake of coming unraveled and taking bonehead penalties (yes, I’m looking at you, Pouliot) and the Penguins can really make you pay. The potent unit will be a dangerous one for the Rangers’ penalty-killers. Are they up for the challenge?