Unless something really wild happens in the standings over the next month we are looking at a Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers matchup in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Neither team is likely to catch the Carolina Hurricanes for first place in the Metropolitan Division, and it seems unlikely (though I guess it is possible) that the Washington Capitals will catch either the Penguins or Rangers. High probability that it is Penguins-Rangers when the playoffs begin. The only thing that is really to be determined is how many games will be played in each building and where it will begin.
With that said, these past three games against the Rangers over the past month or so are going to be worth looking at as some sort of a playoff preview.
Just a few thoughts on what we may have learned.
The first thing that jumps out: The Rangers are good. Really good. Especially after their trade deadline acquisitions. Their underlying metrics may not be great, especially defensively, but they have impact players at the right positions, play a fast-paced game, and are a much deeper team than they were at the start of the season. Not only because of the recent in-season additions of Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte, and Justin Braun, but also because 2020 No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière is starting to play some of the best hockey of his career. They also have 2019 No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko set to return at some point.
That does not even get into the fact they have the likely Vezina Trophy winner and potential Hart Trophy winner in goal with Igor Shesterkin. That guy is really no joke.
Put all of that together and it is a team that is absolutely capable of beating the Penguins in a best-of-seven series. Honestly, the thing about the Eastern Conference is there are no soft matchups here for anybody. Somebody is going to win their Division and either have to play Boston, who might be the hottest team in the league right now and one of the best defensive teams, or Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in the First Round. No result in any of these series are going to be an upset.
Shesterkin is the guy that is the difference maker here, which brings me to my first comment on this matchup: The Penguins have to shoot the puck on him. I really hate to be a shoot the puck guy, but geez, man. I do not look at the Penguins’ shot total on Tuesday night as a great indicator of how the game was played. The Penguins had chances to get shots. They had chances to get chances. They did not always take them. It was almost like they were intentionally overpassing (even by Penguins standards!) to try and create the perfect shot because they did not think they could beat Shesterkin one-on-one. But overpassing did not help. The last three goals they scored against Shesterkin, including the two goals on Tuesday night, were the result of getting a little bit of traffic in front of him and putting pucks on the net. Hell, all three of those goals came on shots from outside of the face off circles. Take the shots. Get deflections. Create rebounds. Maybe you will not always beat him one-on-one, but do you know when else you will not beat him? When you only have 12 shots on goal in 40 minutes of hockey.
My other takeaway is this: Other than the overpassing, I do not hate the way the Penguins have played against the Rangers in these three games, including Tuesday.
They played one really good game (the win).
They played one really bad game (the loss in Madison Square Garden).
They played one pretty even game that could have easily gone either way (Tuesday).
In the first and third games the Penguins had the advantage in scoring chances and a commanding edge in high-danger chances during 5-on-5 play. In fact those were two of the Penguins’ best games this season in terms of suppressing high-danger chances and expected goals, while they held the edge in both categories. Shesterkin kept them off the scoreboard for the most part in the first game, and they had two post shots (Danton Heinen and Mike Matheson) on Tuesday. Not to mention Jake Guentzel having Shesterkin down and out in the closing seconds only to completely whiff on the shot (but at least he shot it instead of trying to make another pass). Plays like that, and a brutal giveaway by Brian Dumoulin on the Ranger’s first goal, were the difference on Tuesday. Sometimes those breaks go your way, sometimes they do not.
The Penguins may not have consistently generated a ton of chances on Tuesday (though, again, some of that is their own doing) but they did not give up many, either. That is a battle in itself against a team like the Rangers.
In the end this is going to be a close series. It is a six or seven game series that is going to be at times frustrating, wild, and exciting. It is a series that either team can easily win. The blueprint is there for the Penguins, and we have seen it in two of the three games against the Rangesr so far this regular season, even if the results were not always there.