The Eastern Conference semifinals seemed all but over when the Pittsburgh Penguins took a decisive 3-1 series lead after Game 4, but a once demoralized and fatigued New York Rangers squad seems re-energized after two straight victories and an emotional spark following tragedy last week.
Now the two Metropolitan Division rivals clash in a winner-takes-all Game 7 to decide who moves on to the next round.
My original prediction? Rangers in seven games.
While I would’ve been happy to abandon that commitment a week ago, I’m sticking by it now, as the Blueshirts seem to be the team destined to advance.
Here are five reasons why:
1. Superior goaltending: The Rangers were given the definitive edge in net heading into the series, with former Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, but Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury emerged as a pleasant surprise for Pittsburgh after posting back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3.
No matter what Fleury does, however, he’s never quite able to shed the lingering doubt that remains from last spring. Critics have again resurfaced after the last pair of losses for the Penguins, during which the 29-year-old netminder has surrendered a few soft goals. That’s not to say his teammates have given him much help, but Fleury’s consistency in net still can’t rival “The King,” who has been absolutely spectacular when his team has faced elimination.
Lundqvist is coming off one of his sharpest performances this spring, making 36 saves in the team’s 3-1 win over the Penguins on Sunday night, which was his seventh straight win when the Rangers faced elimination at Madison Square Garden.
2. Stalled superstar: The cracks are beginning to show for star center Sidney Crosby, who has been largely ineffective for a good portion of the series.
The 26-year-old Hart Trophy candidate has been held without a point in the past two games and seems to becoming unhinged at his lack of production. The vagaries of his struggles -- just one goal in 12 playoff games this spring) were evident in the Penguins’ Game 6 loss at MSG, where he seemed extra intent on engaging the Rangers and antagonizing his opponents. Crosby managed to spear New York’s Dominic Moore and execute a borderline slew foot on defenseman Dan Girardi in just one shift. Later in the game, he found himself in the middle of a heated skirmish after the second period had ended.
Crosby is most effective when he’s active and engaged, yes, but not when he’s entangled in the midst of every scrum and post-whistle fracas.
3. Better balance: While the Rangers have managed to make up for the lack of production from a few embattled stars (yes, I’m looking at you, Rick Nash), they’ve been able to make up for it in secondary scoring.
In all honesty, it’s tough to characterize the line of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello as a “secondary” scoring line -- after all, they’ve been the team’s most consistent trio since midway through the season -- but it’s true the Blueshirts are getting goals out of some of their players who might not get top billing. Brassard, who was quiet in the team’s first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, has really come on as of late, notching three goals in the matter of two games and four in the past six (he scored the overtime winner in Game 1).
Meanwhile, take a look at the top-heavy Penguins and you can see some obvious disparity. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has been using Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz together almost exclusively the latter half of the series, and though Malkin had his beast-mode moment in Game 5, the Penguins top line hasn’t been too imposing. By using the three top players together, Bylsma has a threatening first line, but it also leaves Pittsburgh somewhat one-dimensional.
With the Rangers’ top defensive pairing of Girardi and Ryan McDonagh starting to play at or near potential, New York has been able to contain that line and limit their chances. Without Malkin on his line, James Neal has been a nonfactor with just one goal and three points in six games this series.
4. Peaking at right time: The Rangers appeared dog-tired and defeated after Game 4, but then found new inspiration heading into Game 5 following a heart-wrenching tragedy involving well-respected veteran teammate Martin St. Louis.
St. Louis, who came to New York in a trade back in March, lost his 63-year-old mother, France St. Louis, to a heart attack on Thursday. Though grief-stricken, the 38-year-old forward returned to his team just one day after his mother’s death to play in Game 5 and help the Rangers avoid elimination. That courageous display sparked a listless Rangers team and provided them added motivation to leave everything on the ice.
Since that game, the Blushirts seem to have a new purpose on the ice, which was supremely evident in Game 6, during which St. Louis scored the game’s first goal on Mother’s Day of all days. The Rangers now appear to be all in, committed to prolonging their playoff hopes and sacrificing the individual for the collective. While the Penguins look to be losing confidence at a rapid rate, the Rangers seem to be gaining it in abundance over the past few days.
5. Paralyzing pressure: No doubt the Rangers were the ones with their backs to the wall over the past two games, but a series that is now tied at three games apiece has effectively transferred all of the pressure to the Penguins.
Pittsburgh had some cringe-worthy moments in their first-round series against the wild-card Columbus Blue Jackets, and now they seem to be flirting with a potential second-round collapse despite having a two-game series lead after four games.
It’s not hard to imagine that an inability to close out this best-of-seven set against the Rangers would throw the future of the Penguins’ coaching staff, and possibly the front office, into doubt. Should the Penguins collapse, Bylsma could find himself on the hot seat. General Manager Ray Shero’s might be subject to an increased amount of scrutiny as well.
How’s that for pressure?