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NHL Playoff Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. New York Rangers (3)

NHL: APR 13 Round 1 - Game 1 - Rangers at PenguinsSummary: They're the hottest team in hockey, and have been a nearly unstoppable force over the past few months.

They're the Penguins, and they're going to lose this series. 

Why? Their defense remains a question mark, and they're scoring at a rate that's just unsustainable. There are questions around the health of Evgeni Malkin and Marc Andre Fleury. Both are expected back soon, but it is a factor.

They're up against a battle-tested opponent in the Rangers that might not have been as good as them in the regular season, but we expect the veteran-laden Blueshirts to raise their game. In particular their defense needs to step up and neutralize Pittsburgh’s strong possession game - and will be challenged by speed. The Rangers have also been shooting at an unsustainable rate this season, but will benefit from a closer checking game - and the leveling of that playing field.

And as good as Pittsburgh's offense is, if there's a goalie that can repel it, it's Henrik Lundqvist. 

It'll be an extremely close series, but it'll go to the Rangers.

PREDICTION: Rangers in 7

Game One Recap: Jeff Zatkoff started over game-time decision Marc Andre Fleury (concussion) and delivered a big performance, stopping 35 of 37 shots and keeping the Penguins in the game. He carried a shutout into the third, when the Rangers scored on a 5-on-3 power play. Henrik Lundqvist’s eye injury is the most chilling result of the game. We have picked the Rangers, but without Lundqvist, everything changes. His status is being kept under close wraps by the Rangers, similar to Pittsburgh’s silence on their starter for game one. Patric Hornqvist (2G, 1A) and Sidney Crosby (1G 2A) combined for six points. Derek Stepan scored both New York goals. New York won the Corsi battle 55 CF to 36, and delivered 46 hits to the Pens 29.

Key Injuries: Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin (both expected back soon), Matt Murray, Beau Bennett, NYR – Ryan McDonough

NHL: MAR 20 Penguins at Red WingsCritical Factors: Henrik Lundqvist is critical to New York’s hopes. They finished 15th in the league in defence after finishing first last season, and 34-year old King Henrik has looked average at times, with moments of brilliance – he finished with a very middle of the road 14th in save percentage (0.920) and 22nd in GAA (2.48 – min 30 games). The window to win is closing, and he remains a very good bet to put the regular season behind him and rise to the occasion. Eric Staal was acquired at the trade deadline and Keith Yandle retained, both UFA’s this summer, so the team went all in for a run. The Penguins have been flying (pun intended) under new coach Mike Sullivan, appointed in December. Since he took the helm they posted the league’s second highest CF% (54.6), just behind LA, and a full two percentage points above third place – up from 20th place (48.4%) under coach Johnston – a remarkable turnaround that can’t be ignored. Marc Andre Fleury was making a case for the Vezina at stretches, and finally looked ready for the big Spring performance everyone has been waiting for, before suffering a concussion. The Rangers boast an experienced defensive group that outmatches Pittsburgh’s and their poise in handling the Pens firepower, and interrupting their strong possession game could be a big point of differentiation in the series. It will mean a number of them raising their game - but they have been here before. Ryan McDonagh, their best defenceman, broke his hand, but is listed as day-to-day.

NHL: APR 07 Rangers at DevilsPotential Breakout Players: The Penguins stars have been playing at an elite level since the coaching change Sidney Crosby (50-27-36-63, 1.26 PPG), Kris Letang (45-13-37-50, 1.11 PPG), Evgeni Malkin (26-13-18-31, 1.19 PPG). Nick Bonino (13-5-11-16 together) filled in well for Malkin between Phil Kessel (13-6-7-13) and Carl Hagelin (37-10-17-27 with Pittsburgh, 13-6-7-13 with Bonino and Kessel). Crosby linemates Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz could flourish if he continues to raise the level of his play (see game one). Derek Stepan was blazing hot down the stretch with 17 points in his last 10 games (10-8-9-17) – adding two goals in the first game. He and Chris Kreider form an effective tandem (nine points in his last eight - 8-5-4-9). Rick Nash has only scored twice in the last 16 games (16-2-0-2) after suffering a bone bruise. Mats Zuccarello has been skating with Stepan on the top line over the last while, and is coming off a career year – largely combining well with Derick Brassard for much of the season. A big playoff could be in store.

Season Matchup: Pittsburgh 3-1

Key Stats

CF% 5v5 ( PIT 52.6% (2nd) NYR 47.5% (25th)

PDO ( PIT 100.6 (7th) NYR 102.3 (1st)

Power Play ( PIT 18.4% (16th) NYR 18.6% (14th)

Penalty Kill ( PIT 84.4% (5th) NYR 78.2% (26th)

Goals For per-game ( PIT 2.94 (3rd) NYR 2.84 (7th)

Goals Against per-game ( PIT 2.43 (6th) NYR 2.62 (15th)

Notes: New York enjoyed the most ‘puck luck’ of any NHL team – finishing first in both OSh% (8.9%) and OSv% (93.4%). The on-ice save percentage has been top four for the last four years (1st, 4th, 2nd, 1st) so Lundqvist looms large – on-ice shooting percentage is elevated based on previous years – 4th last year, but 28th and 18th the previous two. Pittsburgh owns a large advantage in possession at 5v5 – and are middle of the road on OSh% with 7.5% - until you look at a their 9.1% OSh% since January – which jumps to 9.9% in the months of March and April – not likely sustainable despite their superstars. Both power plays are middle of the road, but the Rangers weakness penalty killing stands out.