3 Reasons Why The Penguins Will and Won't Beat The Rangers

 

Courtesy of the NHL's official website


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Happy playoffs! After a wonderful night of playoff hockey on Monday, we'll be treated to the Penguins' portion of the Game One schedule Tuesday evening. Pittsburgh begins their quest to 16 wins against the New York Rangers, the team everyone thought they would meet in the first round all along.

On the surface, there might not be much intrigue about this series outside of Pittsburgh and New York. The matchup has virtually been set in stone for a while now and the Rangers have had the Penguins' number for most of the year. They've met four times. The Penguins won the first matchup and the Rangers won the ensuing three which came in a span of about two weeks.

So here we are, on the doorstep of the final days of the Penguins' core playing together, and everything is gloom and doom, right? I'd like to think it's not but that's for you to decide.

What I am here to do is to provide you with reasons why the Penguins could win this series in an underdog role as well as reasons why the Rangers seem to be the trendy pick in this series.

Why The Penguins Will Win

1. Experience and the underdog role

When do the Penguins play their best hockey? The simple answer to that question is when they're counted out and seemingly made the underdogs heading into any given game or series. Betting against head coach Mike Sullivan as well as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang hasn't proven to be a smart idea. Sure, it's worked from time to time.

However, I'm not sure it is something I'd advise doing often.

On this current roster, Crosby, Malkin, and Letang have three Stanley Cup championships a piece. Bryan Rust, Jeff Carter (Los Angeles Kings), and Brian Dumoulin have two Stanley Cup titles. Jake Guentzel has one. This is a big deal. They know what it takes to win championships and grind for four series worth of games to win the ultimate prize.

Barclay Goodrow is the lone Ranger with a championship ring.  He has two after playing the last two seasons with the Lightning.

That's not to say that the Rangers don't have guys who've played in the playoffs before. Chris Kreider has certainly put up some battles. Jacob Trouba has a solid amount of playoff games under his belt. Even Artemi Panarin has played playoff games for three different franchises in his young career.

However, I think the Penguins' greater amount of experience is most important. Also neither goaltender has much playoff experience under their belt so that will become more of a pedigree debate that we'll discuss later.

2. Sidney Crosby

It cannot be overstated how big it is having this guy on your side. Chris Kreider and Mike Zibanejad are good players. However, none of the players skating around in a blue and white sweater this series is even on the same level of importance as Crosby.

His last few postseasons have been miserable. He has six points in his last fourteen playoff games and don't think for a second that isn't bugging the hell out of him. Crosby wants nothing more than to take that playoff frustration out on the Rangers. 

He has 119 points in 100 career games against the Rangers including playoffs. He has 21 points in 22 postseason games against them. Crosby has 11 goals and 16 points in 10 playoff games at Madison Square Garden. He loves playing there.

There aren't many cities that despise Sid more than New York either. He thrives off of that.

Pittsburgh needs to win a game at MSG to stand a chance going forward in the series. Crosby does phenomenal when he plays there and the Penguins could make things very uncomfortable by winning game one and shocking the Rangers on home ice. Crosby would play a huge part in that if it were to happen.

3. It's a new season

The Rangers certainly had the Penguins' number this regular season. On the radio Monday afternoon, Mike Sullivan talked about how he believes the Penguins' losses against the Rangers might not be as lopsided as the results suggest. He claimed that the Penguins hadn't given up a lot of Grade-A chances in these games but they gave up enough for the Rangers to capitalize.

Good teams ultimately take advantage of those types of plays. The Rangers are a good team.

Despite three out of four losses, the playoffs present a chance to reset and get back into your game. Pittsburgh and the Rangers haven't seen each other since April 7th when the Rangers shutout the Penguins 3-0. Since then, the Penguins have been an up-and-down team. They have scored goals against bad teams and been moderately average against the good teams.

Each playoff game is important. No team wants to go down a game to open the series, especially the home team because the pressure begins to mount. If the Penguins focus on the game on hand and don't look past it, there's no reason they can't put up a fight in this series and maybe even come away with an unexpected series victory, one that would be their first since 2018 when they beat Philadelphia but lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Capitals.

Three reasons why the Rangers will beat the Penguins

1. Special teams

The Penguins penalty-kill has spent a bevy of time at the top of the league this season. They've hovered anywhere in the top-three for most of the season. They finished third at 84.3% on the year which is a bit lower of a percentage than they held most of the year. Coincidentally or not, when the Penguins traded Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon, the numbers went down a tad. The Rangers, the league's sixth-best penalty killing unit, finished at 82.3%.

The Rangers are trending up in this area while the Penguins are trending down. This could be a concern for Pittsburgh when the Rangers get on the power play.

New York's lethal power play has converted on just over a quarter of their chances this season at 25.2% and will be a focal point of the series. Pittsburgh's man advantage, despite loads of star power, has been dysfunctional and finished at 20.2% which is good for 19th in the NHL.

The whistles tend to be swallowed in the postseason and teams are allowed to just play. If that holds true for this round, the Penguins have to stop the Rangers power play and can't let them convert at a high clip.  If the Rangers power play gets going, even if it's just doing it with one or two chances a game, this series could be over quick for the Penguins.

2. Goaltending advantage

Igor Shesterkin is probably the best goalie in the NHL right now. He's likely on a crash course to win the Vezina. He'll be opposed, at least early on in the series, by Penguins' backup goaltender Casey DeSmith.

One could look at that matchup and laugh, but I think DeSmith could surprise a lot of people. I don't know that he is going to steal a series but he is good enough to play a role in the Penguins winning a series. Interestingly enough, DeSmith has a higher career save percentage than both Tristan Jarry and Marc-Andre Fleury. He is better than most give him credit for.

All that being said, Shesterkin has a 36-13-4 record to go along with a 2.07 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. Couple that with his six shutouts and you see why the Penguins are going to face an uphill battle in this series.

If they do get Jarry back at some point in the series, then the Penguins will look a little better on paper in that matchup. However, if the series is close and DeSmith is playing well, do you play Jarry immediately or do you let DeSmith ride it out until he cools off? You don't want to ruin any hot streak the team may be on.

DeSmith stands at 6'0" according to the NHL's official website. He is obviously small compared to other goaltenders around the league but he plays bigger with his athleticism making up for some of what he lacks in size. He is a fine backup goalie, but is being thrust into a situation that isn't ideal.

Anyone remember Jeff Zatkoff?

3. Speed game

A key ingredient for beating the Penguins in recent seasons has been to build a team that plays a speed game. This is part of why the Penguins were so successful in the early Mike Sullivan days. They out-skated a lot of teams. However, they are not that type of team anymore even though it seems like they try to be.

The Rangers are a legitimately fast squad. They come at you with four lines that can skate well and are hard to play against. Even their defensemen are active and can move with good speed.

The Penguins are an older team. Some of their best players are on the wrong side of 30 and have played an astronomical amount of hockey in the past decade and a half.

The Rangers power play is nearly flawless due in large part to their speed. Guys like Kreider and Panarin make a huge difference with the man advantage. It will be interesting to see if the Penguins can hang with them over the course of a seven game series.

Series Prediction: Rangers in 6

I want to believe the Penguins have another run in them but I don't think this team as currently constructed does. I think the Pens split the first four games with the Rangers seizing the lead at home in game five and riding that momentum back to Pittsburgh and sending the Penguins home on their own ice and out of the playoffs in the first-round for the third consecutive season.

I predict Crosby nets seven points over the six games. DeSmith will hold his own in the first four games but upon being put on the brink of elimination, Jarry gets the game six start and has to fight last year's playoff demons with the thought of not being able to make any mistakes or else the Penguins are going home.

Best case scenario for me feels like the Penguins win in seven. I'd be absolutely stunned if the Penguins win the series in any less games. Just for them to win would be a pleasant enough surprise.

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