The New York Rangers won the Presidents Trophy for the best regular season record. They are a deep team without many weaknesses and have one of the best goaltenders in the world. Defeating them in the playoffs will be a tall task for any team, especially the Pittsburgh Penguins.
However, hockey is a sport built around largely around injuries, hot goalies, luck, bounces, momentum, cold streaks- and often times the best regular season team does not win the Stanley Cup. In fact, it's only twice in the past 9 years.
It will take a lot of good fortune, but here are some realistic keys that the Penguins need to go their way in order to have any hope of winning their playoff series.
* * *
1. Fast starts ... or at least, not disastrous starts
Marc-Andre Fleury gave up a franchise low 15 goals in a 7 game series last spring against the Rangers, and yet the Penguins still lost. A big reason for that was the bad starts that the team (including Fleury) had with allowing too many goals early.
In the 4 games the Pens lost to NYR last May (G1, G5, G6 and G7) the combined 1st period scores were 7-1 in favor of NYR. The Rangers only scored 6 total goals in their 4 wins in periods OTHER than the 1st.
In the 3 games the Pens won last year, the combined scores were just 1-0 in Pittsburgh's favor through the 1st period. It was pretty simple: if Pittsburgh held NYR off the board early, they won. If the Pens allowed a goal early, they lost.
Lesson to be learned? Don't spot a good team with a great goalie a 1-0 or 2-0 lead in the first period, the odds of making comebacks aren't that great this time of year. The Penguins won't win a game in the first period, but they can definitely lose a game that way.
2. Power play must produce
Even though the Penguins are a better puck possession team this year, and they were better at even-strength too, the team will probably live or die this playoff based on how their power play goes. With Kris Letang out and Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot with unknown (at best) statuses, a lot of weight will fall upon Evgeni Malkin here.
Malkin will most likely be shifted back to defense on the blueline, a position the coaches didn't want to run with this time of year, but don't have much choice to avoid it. Malkin must be smart and distribute the puck well in order to let guys like Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist work the puck down low, and ideally score some goals.
The Penguins have had struggles producing goals against the Rangers recently, and just overall too. In the playoffs the team that gets better power play production doesn't often lose a series.
3. Target Dan Girardi
The Rangers blueline is incredibly deep, but not without their blind-spots. One of them is Dan Girardi, who maintains a 1st pairing role, despite being a weak link. Girardi isn't a swift skater and is prone to make errors with the puck. Often times he leads the Rangers in ice time, or is very close to doing so. He's also on the ice for by far the most Corsi attempts against the team at 5v5 and his advanced stats in any light show a player struggling to handle the tough minutes that he's tasked with.
This is a huge opportunity for the Pens. Girardi had a tough playoff last year and has looked like he's had his stumbles this season. Dump the puck into his corner, make him chase it and make a play and hit him. He will cough it up and chances can be created off of it. New York doesn't have many weaknesses, but if they lean on Girardi for tough minutes, Pittsburgh has to make them pay for this it.
4. Play with nothing to lose
Last year's series with the Rangers suddenly shifted in Game 5, with the Pens up 3 games to 1. NYR got an emotional boost with Martin St. Louis' situation of losing his mother, but they were a team that was shutout in Games 3 & 4 and looked like they were one foot out the door.
However, that free feeling worked out for them. Instead of tensing up, they played through it and recovered to blow the Pens out in Game 5 and take the series back to their home ice for Game 6.
This year, the roles are reversed. The Rangers are the heavy favorites, as they should be. The Penguins aren't being given too much of a chance, but they can use that to their advantage. Just play hard, and with nothing to lose and the longer the series goes, the more of a chance the Pens will give themselves.
5. Make it ugly, and make it a team effort
We know that players like Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal are good defenders in front of the net. But how will 39 year old Dan Boyle hold up if the Pens are driving the net and maintaining more zone time? Same for Kevin Klein, who's had a great season but returning from an injury. Or offensive minded defenseman Keith Yandle.
The Pens need Hornqvist, David Perron and any member of the bottom six to be in front of the cage whenever possible. Henrik Lundqvist is going to stop what he can see, and even some he can't with his positioning and skill. The Pens need Chris Kunitz to power up to life. They'll need Steve Downie to play with some discipline. A contribution from Nick Spaling or Max Lapierre too would be valuable.
Even though Crosby and Malkin will have to be difference makers, they can't do it all on their own. The Pens are built to drive to the net, get traffic, cycle pucks and generate scoring chances. This is in the "much easier said than done" file, but Pittsburgh has a great opportunity to get contributions from up and down the lineup. Just as last year depth players like Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello killed the Pens, Pittsburgh will need their depth to return the favor if they want to win.
It doesn't have to be pretty, but it would be effective.