Your reach should exceed your grasp or what’s a Heaven for?
– Poet Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto
The Rangers certainly reached in June of 2014, but in the end their quest for the Stanley Cup failed their grasp. Or, as they say in Coney Island, “Close but no cigar.”
But that’s old business; ancient hockey history. What matters is now and the weeks of hockey ahead. Don’t at all be surprised if celebratory stogies will be passed around the Blueshirts dressing room this June if the Presidents’ Trophy-winners succeed in a few areas in which they erred last year.
So, now the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins provide the first obstacle but, really, it’s the Pittsburghers who have much to fear from the Seventh Avenue juggernaut. Here’s why:
The Penguins’ dauntless duet of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin once struck fear in the hearts of foes, but those days seem long ago. The Penguins’ offense may not be tissue thin, but it’s far from the deadly outfit of their Cup year.
Crosby is aligned – for the moment at least – with Daniel Winnik and Patric Hornqvist. Sure, Sir Sidney can do it all, but a heavy checker will limit his chances and while his buddies can create net havoc, they are far less than the best.
Malkin, who seems more out than in this season, works with Chris Kunitz and David Perron. If Malkin brings his strong game, this outfit can do more than Crosby’s, especially if Perron finds that scoring touch that he left in Edmonton before being traded to Pitt.
The Pens’ other lines – Beau Bennett, Brent Sutter, Steve Downie, plus Nick Spaling, Maxim Lapierre, Blake Comeau indicate why Pitt just barely made it into the playoffs.
On the other side, the Rangers open the first round with many offensive assets. To wit:
With 42 goals on the season, the Rangers are led by Rick Nash. His plus-29 also paced the team, as he went on his way to become team MVP. The solid play of Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider, and Mats Zuccarello became the supporting cast for the Big 61 as the team featured one of the top offenses in the league (third in goals per game).
The re-signing of Zuccarello solved several questions that fans, and teammates, had about the team’s direction. Once rumors of Mats’ suspected departure were proven false, the team went on a run which moved them into the league’s top spot.
New York’s line balance is more than Pittsburgh can match and it starts with Nash-Zuccarello and Brassard. They combine like perfectly meshed gears with Brassard the most potent setup (41 assists) man. Zuccy’s 49 points and ability to take on the biggest foes is a much larger asset than Mats is tall.
Capable of being a first line itself, the unit comprised of Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller and Krieder – alias “All-American Line” – is orchestrated by Stepan’s facilitating passes. Kreider and Miller symbolize the overall Rangers speed and physical play.
Then there’s the trio that includes Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and Marty St. Louis. Wonderboy Hayes is a non-panic rookie who uses his big frame and NCAA experience to take an extra-second to see the ice. His poise, vision and passing skills are beyond his years. St. Louis’ resume speaks for itself; thus his goals will come while Kid Lightning Hagelin will gratefully accept any stretch pass coming his way.
While the Dom Moore–Jesper Fast–Tanner Glass trio isn’t the best fourth-line in the league – Glass can be replaced at any time byJames Sheppard – it not only checks well, but Moore will surprise with a goal when needed.
New York’s D is its forte. Led by the duo of captain Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, the back line does it all – from offense to shot-blocking – and has matured over the years. Exhibit A is Marc Staal now working with vet Dan Boyle. In the significant absence of Kevin Klein, Keith Yandle and Matt Hunwick bring up the rear. Helpful is the fact that Yandle is looking more comfortable in his blue shirt.
Pittsburgh is hurting big-time on the blue line. Run up and down the line and there’s little to commend. If – as I see it – Paul Martin is the best they have, rookie coach Mike Johnston is in big-big trouble. Others include Ben Lovejoy, Rob Scuderi and Ian Cole. The Pens are hampered by a relatively ineffective third unit.
Johnston’s hope is that useful Christian Ehrhoff – he’s their puck-mover – will return in time for the opener.
Henrik Lundqvist has shaken his sabbatical rust and is taking keen aim at The Cup; which is bad news for all enemy shooters. He’s rested, in mint condition and gives his pals a chance to win any game. If necessary, Cam Talbot has proven that his worth, as either starter or backup, is well-established.
When Pitt netminder Marc-Andre Fleury is good, he’s very, very good and when he’s bad; well, you know the rest. Johnston’s hope is the former and not the latter and likely will run with the French-Canadian whose career as a Penguin – in some ways – is on the line in this series.
Alain Vigneault‘s power play finished 21st in the regular season scoring on 16.8% of chances. And this with Zuccarello, Nash, St. Louis, Brassard and Kreider. The salvation is having a winning point man – Stepan, McDonagh, Boyle, Yandle – to deliver. One good PP goal in Game 1 should be the salvation.
Ranked 10th in the league (19.3%), Pitt’s power play has two versions with Crosby-Malkin manning the first unit, and a second one that features Brandon Sutter, Perron and Kunitz. Bottom Line: As Crosby-Malkin go, so goes the Pens’ PP.
The Rangers’ penalty-killers rank among the best (sixth in the league; 84.3%) due to AV’s team defense blueprint; everyone pitches in on the PK. Nash is a key with Stepan and Moore starring on face-offs. Then there’s the best PK man of all, Lundqvist.
Impressively, Pitt’s PK was third-best over the regular season (84.8%). Winnik and Lapierre are the Penguins’ best along with able vet Craig Adams. For a shorthanded threat, Malkin gets some PK time as well.
Alain Vigneault has the Presidents’ Trophy and trips to the Final, but no Stanley Cup. He’s a good bet to win the Adams Trophy as top coach and has made his team a winner by balancing four lines and keeping his composure in tight situations.
Mike Johnston has plenty of bench experience, but never before as an NHL head coach. His Penguins came awfully close to missing the playoffs and his job may be in jeopardy if he fails to get past the first round.
The Rangers should win this series in no more than five games. Pittsburgh concluded the season in a state of disarray. The Pens depend on a pair of stars while the Rangers boast balance up and down the line and in goal. Unless Marc-Andre Fleury enjoys the series of his life, Round One for the Blueshirts should be over in no time at all giving the Rangers plenty of time to get ready for Round Two.