If someone were concocting a nightmare scenario for the Rangers’ season, it would likely be a playoff exit in the second round. In a season where they are the favorites to come out of the East to contend for the Stanley Cup, a second-round upset would be unacceptable and worrisome (with so many Rangers as unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents this summer).
With a team that has not conceded more than four goals in any game this season, has the soon-to-be 2012 Vezina winning goaltender, and is led by a coach who already has won a cup in his career, this nightmare seems far-fetched. But Tuesday night’s loss against Pittsburgh proved that, if the Penguins advance to the second round, it is not out of the question. This scenario could unfold if the Rangers clinch the one seed and the Penguins drop to six, behind the Devils and Flyers. A Penguins victory in the first round over the three seed (which would be the lowly winner of the Southeast division) would have the Rangers and Penguins squaring up, assuming the Bruins cruise through their opponent.
New York has lost two straight matchups to Pittsburgh, and while they had won their first two tilts, there are some real problems that this divisional foe presents for them.
The Penguins’ offensive style is almost comically identical to the Rangers. They present a hard forecheck, force a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone, and let their stars create scoring opportunities from those takeaways. They battle hard along the boards, block shots, and create problematic traffic as well as any team I’ve seen against Lundqvist. They have very impressive success breaking out of their own zone, and it is worth mentioning, they have the best player in the NHL right now in Evgeni Malkin.
But there is an important difference between their first two matchups and their last two. The difference is that the Penguins’ top forwards -- Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and James Neal -- have been producing the firepower. Malkin has three of the six total Pittsburgh goals, Kunitz has one, and Neal has been a major scoring threat. That line has been producing all season, and while the Rangers spread out their two biggest playmaking threats, Richards and Gaborik, there has been a very noticeable decrease in both players’ production since the calendar turned.