The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, in the second round in 2008, the Penguins were an emerging force and the Rangers were trying to meld the old of Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan with the new of Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. The Penguins dispatched the Rangers in five games en route to a berth in the Stanley Cup finals. This time around, the Penguins are trying to restore their championship luster after a number of disappointing turns following their Cup win in 2009. The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to search for the right combination that will get them over the playoff hump, having failed to return to the Cup finals since their last Cup win, in 1994. The Penguins endured some up-and-down moments against a plucky Columbus Blue Jackets team before playing their best hockey in the final two victories. The Rangers, meanwhile, eked out a 2-1 victory in Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers and will end up playing three games in four nights, with Game 1 of the conference semifinals series set tentatively to start Friday.
Penguins: Sidney Crosby
With Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin showing signs of life late in the series against Columbus (Malkin potted three in the sixth and deciding game for his first playoff goals since the end of the second round last spring), James Neal looking dangerous and even Kris Letang scoring an empty-net goal, it falls to captain Sidney Crosby to bear the brunt of the ongoing "Gee, are you ever going to score another playoff goal?" line of questioning. And, to be fair, the fact it's been 11 straight postseason games without a goal for the player who will assuredly run away with the Hart Trophy as the league's regular-season MVP is more than a little vexing. But here's the thing, Crosby has been very good thus far. He's won key draws, he's backchecked like a demon and he's moved the puck around on a power play that scored six times in the first round (although the unit did give up three short-handed goals). Now, it does seem inconceivable the Penguins can advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the second season in a row without Crosby pitching in with actual goals, but the first round showed that it's not imperative.
Rangers: Rick Nash
Well, if the pressure is on Crosby to find the back of the net, there is at least an equal amount of pressure on two-time Olympic gold medalist Rick Nash, who continues to struggle to produce for the Rangers at the times when they acquired him most to produce -- in the playoffs. Nash didn't score in the seven-game set with the Flyers and now has one goal in 19 postseason games since he was acquired at great cost from the Blue Jackets in the summer of 2012. Throw in his one goal in four games with the Blue Jackets in '09, and Nash has managed to score just twice in 22 postseason games, and he has never played beyond the second round since coming into the league in 2002-03. As with Crosby, Nash does other things, although, given that he doesn't play center, those mitigating plays are fewer. Like Crosby with the Pens, Nash's lack of goal scoring (he had four assists) didn't keep the Rangers from advancing to the second round. But we're guessing it's more imperative Nash start scoring than Crosby.
Hero In Waiting
Penguins: Kris Letang
Things didn't start out all that well in the first round for last season's Norris Trophy nominee Letang. And, no doubt, it's been a tough season for the smooth-skating Letang, whose career was suddenly thrown into doubt when he suffered a stroke. But after a couple of shaky games to start that resulted in a brief benching, Letang returned to form as the series moved along. He was especially effective when paired with Paul Martin after Brooks Orpik left with an injury. He'll still have to control his temper, and while, he has at least temporarily lost his spot on the top power-play unit, Letang has the tools to become an important figure in a series that figures to turn on the Pens' ability to force the Rangers to open up.
Rangers: Zuccarello's line
How good is the Rangers' forward unit of Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot? Well, pretty darned good. Even though Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis led the Rangers in the first round with six points apiece, this unit of Brassard, Zuccarello and Pouliot might well have been the team's most consistent group from start to finish and, in fact, produced the game's winning goal in Game 7. Pouliot has been especially impressive and might be playing the best hockey of his career. Pretty good for a guy who was long been considered a bust after having been selected with the fourth-overall pick in 2005 by the Minnesota Wild. That kind of continued production will be important because the Rangers will be in tough to keep up offensively with the Penguins.
Penguins: Sloppy defense
If you polled 100 people, Penguins fans or not, and asked them what the team's fatal flaw is, we're guessing 90 or so would point to netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. We don't think so. First of all, Fleury was the team's most consistent player in the six-game series with the Blue Jackets. Yeah, he melted down a bit in Game 4 but was pretty darned good otherwise. Of greater concern is the Penguins' propensity to lose their marbles defensively. Defensive-zone turnovers and turnovers in the neutral zone, sometimes precipitated by careless, cutesy passes, the kind that very talented teams make because they think they can do stuff like that with impunity, are something the Pens can't afford against a Rangers team that has the speed and skill to take advantage of those kinds of mistakes.
Can the Rangers find enough consistency in their game to stay with a Penguins team that can be a serious handful? The series with the Flyers was a study in contrasts for the Rangers: one night, tight defensively and opportunistic offensively, on their heels and disorganized the next. The fact the Rangers were able to rebound from a horrific performance in Game 6 in Philadelphia to get a win in Game 7 was impressive, but they went 0-for-13 on the power play on the road against Philadelphia and were just 3-for-29 overall. They'll have to be better more often to keep pace with the Penguins.
Not sure the perceived advantage in goal the Rangers have with Lundqvist is as pronounced as it might seem on first blush. With Brandon Sutter looking like he's recovered from missing time in Game 6 after an injury off a blocked shot, the Pens have lots of options down the middle and, in the end, will prove too much for the Rangers.
Penguins in 6