Rewind back to the middle of the 2021-22 season, and you’ll remember why it’s tough to see anybody but the New York Rangers coming out of this middle-Metro matchup.
It was around then, in January and February, that the chatter picked up around Rangers netminder Igor Shesterkin, so dominant was his performance at that time that the question was thrown out there: The Vezina seems a lock, but how about the Hart, too? He’s come back to earth from his .947 January save percentage and .959 February mark. Unfortunately for the team on the other side of the ice, “back to earth” means an April .930, and a still-comfortable position atop the leaderboard of this season’s netminders league-wide.
There are a few crucial elements you need to lift that silver Cup. Game-breaking talent, some scoring depth around them, some top-end skill on the back end and, above all else, a world-beating netminder. We need only look to last year’s Montreal Canadiens to see how far that last piece can take a club. The problem is the Rangers also have Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider up front — the latter of whom has decided to try on his 50-goal hat this season — and reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox on the back end, too. Simply put, they’re a problem.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, have more to give than most probably assume — their marquee names quietly put together impressive campaigns in the shadow of the game’s newer, younger stars, and the deadline addition of Rickard Rakell proving a potentially game-changing one for their offensive balance. But as has become tradition in the Steel City, an injury to a key name has molded their chances into a looming question mark — netminder Tristan Jarry, who’s rebounded from last year’s playoff meltdown with an excellent season, has a broken foot. And even before he went down, the Pens seemed to be wilting a little down the stretch, prompting some other question marks to sprout up here and there.
There’s still plenty of magic left in the Pens’ Big Three, and the chance that this could be their final ride together could inspire a resurgent post-season from the group. But there’s no denying they have a monster of a matchup ahead of them.
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
It’s tough to imagine the Penguins heading into this series with an abundance of confidence given how the clubs’ regular-season clashes went down. The Rangers and Penguins met four times during the 2021-22 season. After a narrow 1-0 win by Pittsburgh to start that season series off, New York took the next three tilts. And all told, the Blueshirts outscored Sidney Crosby’s club 11-4 over those four meetings.
It’s not a fully accurate representation of what could happen in the post-season — the Pens were without Evgeni Malkin for one of those games, and without Crosby for another, both absences significantly changing the complexion of their offence. In the two games that saw them dress both their future Hall of Famers, it was more of an even split — a narrow 1-0 win for Pittsburgh and a narrow 3-2 win for New York.
Go down the rosters and the clubs seem fairly even in terms of the weapons they have at their disposal. Some top-end offensive talent, a dynamic blue-liner leading the back end — both teams have more than enough talent to put pucks in nets. In fact, look to the numbers below, and it’s the Penguins’ offence that, as a whole, has hummed along at a better clip. But again, it seems it’ll come down to that massively important goaltending question. In one end, the season’s best tender, who’s already proven he can withstand Pittsburgh’s offence. In the other, Pittsburgh’s No. 2.
Casey DeSmith has enough talent to get his club through a few games, or even a round if need be. But it’s far from an ideal plot twist for the Penguins, and it sure feels like Pittsburgh doesn’t move on unless they get Jarry back at some point during the first round, and find a way to grind out some one-goal wins.
(5-on-5 totals via Natural Stat Trick)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
New York Rangers X-Factor: Chris Kreider
Aside from the big man in net, the most important Ranger when these playoffs are said and done might just be Chris Kreider. There are bigger names on the roster up front and on the back end, who have more raw talent than Kreider. But the big-bodied winger has long played a style that seems well-suited to post-season success. And now, a decade into his career, he’s emerged with a career-best 50-goal campaign, looking far and away the best version of himself, just as the team around him seems to be peaking. It wouldn’t be a shock to see some of the Rangers’ high-flyers stymied to a certain degree when the grind of the post-season hits. But given how Kreider plays and how he gets his goals, there’s a good chance he can just keep rolling. And given what the team around him can do, that could be a game changer for the Eastern bracket.
Pittsburgh Penguins X-Factor: Rickard Rakell
There’s not much mystery when it comes to the Penguins’ group. Go down the lineup, and it’s clear what they’ve got. Crosby, Malkin and Letang have proven what they can do in the crucible of the post-season, as have Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. Jeff Carter has proved a valuable depth addition, and much of the rest of the squad figures to be important but not game-changing for Pittsburgh’s chances. If there is one potential mystery, it’s Rickard Rakell, the shrewd deadline addition from the team’s new head office. A 30-goal-scorer in his best days, and stuck on an underwhelming Ducks team for years, Rakell’s seemed motivated as ever to make the most of his time with a bona fide contender. He’s looked good for Pittsburgh so far, putting up 13 points in 18 games, spending time alongside both Malkin and Crosby. But there’s still a sense that he hasn’t fully settled in yet, that he hasn’t shown what he’s fully capable of. What he has shown are glimpses of elite skill and vision. The Pens will need all they can get in both categories to take down Shesterkin, and Rakell might just be the key to taking Pittsburgh’s offence to the next level when it matters most.
Tuesday, May 3: at New York, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet/CBC)
Thursday, May 5: at New York, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet/CBC)
Saturday, May 7: at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet/CBC)
Monday, May 9: at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet/CBC)
*Wednesday, May 11: at New York
*Friday, May 13: at Pittsburgh
*Sunday, May 15: at New York