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Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Updated: April 23, 10:21 AM ET
Second-round breakdown: Penguins vs. Rangers

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

It's not the Sidney Crosby/Alexander Ovechkin matchup many were hoping to see in the second round. Still, this is an intriguing series that should provide plenty of entertainment, not to mention story lines.

The Penguins appear to have taken the lessons learned in their first-round defeat against the Ottawa Senators last spring to heart, banishing those same Sens from the playoffs in four quick games this postseason. The Rangers, meanwhile, also have been maturing, advancing to the second round for the second straight season after ousting the New Jersey Devils in five games.

Both teams look like they are built for the long haul, but, of course, only one will prevail. The two represent contrasts in style with the offensively deep Penguins looking to run opposing teams out of the building, while the patient and disciplined Rangers wait for opposing teams to make mistakes and then pounce. The Penguins are blessed with young, emerging talent like Crosby, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, who was a force in the first round, while the Rangers will rely on veterans Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Brendan Shanahan to carry the day.

This one should be interesting.

1. The battle down the middle. One of the reasons this series is so compelling is the wealth of talent down the middle. Apart from goaltending, being strong at the center position is perhaps the most important element in a long playoff run. The Penguins have as good a trio as any in the NHL with Crosby, Malkin and Staal, who hasn't enjoyed the offensive numbers he did as a rookie, but is still a premier two-way player and penalty-killing specialist. The Rangers may not have that kind of glamour down the middle, but with Gomez, Drury and Brandon Dubinsky and/or Martin Straka, they are plenty deep.

2. Rust versus rust. Again with the playoff clichés. But the bottom line is, the Penguins finished their first-round sweep of the Sens last Wednesday. The wait will be good for Crosby, who suffered a painful high-ankle sprain in January. The rest also will help veteran Gary Roberts, who missed the final two games of the first round with a groin injury after being effective early in the series. But how long will it take to get the adrenaline level to playoff level? One period? A game? The Rangers, too, have been idle since April 18. Opening at home on Friday should give the Penguins an extra lift, but the first period or two of this series may not rank as classic.

3. Last call for Jags? If indeed this is Jagr's last turn as an NHL player -- the rumors that he already agreed to a contract to play in Russia next season are persistent, if unconfirmed -- the five-time NHL scoring champ appears determined to head out on a high note. Dogged by criticism for most of the regular season, Jagr turned it on down the stretch, and his strong play carried into the first round against New Jersey. The Devils had no answer for Jagr, who had eight points in five games. Will the Pens?

4. Battered blue lines. If the Rangers and Pens both boast impressive offensive tools, most critics would point to the teams' respective blue lines as the chink in their armors. The Rangers lack the offensive force from the back end like a Sergei Gonchar or a true punishing physical presence like a Dion Phaneuf. Still, this group is resilient and well coached. Playing in front of Lundqvist, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, doesn't hurt, either. Likewise, the Penguins' defensive corps is both tougher and more positionally sound than some would have you believe. That said, both the Rangers and Pens sailed through the first round against teams that had little offensive punch. Both blue-line corps will face a much sterner test this time around. The difference between bending and breaking may be thin and may also represent the difference in the series.

5. The Senators factor. Were the Penguins that good against Ottawa, or were the Senators that bad? Maybe a little of both. One positive for the Penguins was, regardless of the situation, they didn't change their style of play. They kept pushing as opposed to falling back and trying to protect a lead. Still, the Senators weren't very good and the Rangers are, so there may be a bit of a culture shock for the Penguins in Round 2. They'll have to adjust quickly.

• Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Henrik Lundqvist: It's a bit of a playoff chestnut to suggest goaltenders play each other. They don't, really. But it will be fascinating to see how Marc-Andre Fleury responds after his first playoff series win, facing off against one of the bright lights of the goaltending fraternity in Lundqvist. Three straight Vezina Trophy nominations for Lundqvist and improved play each season in the playoffs suggest Lundqvist gets it. Does Fleury?

• Penguins: Evgeni Malkin has seven points in four games and has been a force. Defenseman Ryan Whitney, a staple on the Pens' power play, has one assist.

• Rangers: Dubinsky is tied with Sergei Kostitsyn for the lead among rookie point-producers in the postseason with three goals and three assists. Fredrik Sjostrom, who came over from Phoenix at the trade deadline, has one assist and hasn't scored in 14 straight games.

The Penguins have the edge in offense, and if Fleury can saw off Lundqvist, they should advance. Penguins in six.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.