Experience, depth, defense, goaltending, physical play…there’s a lot of things that pundits attribute success in the playoffs to. The Stanley Cup can be won in as few as 16 games, or as many as 28. It’s a grind, a war of attrition to see who will have the opportunity to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end of it.
For many of the Rangers, it’ll be a new experience. The Game 1 line-up projects to have as many as four newcomers, as well as backup netminder Alexandar Georgiev. It’ll also feature a further six, who will see their first seven game series, and first playoff experience in front of a crowd. Eighteen of the twenty players expected to be dressed for Tuesday’s match-up witth the Penguins, will be wearing the Rangers uniform at MSG in a playoff game for the first time.
Not surprising of course, after all the Rangers haven’t qualified for a fully fledged post season, over six months before the team announced a rebiuld to their fans. Only Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad remain from that era, though they aren’t exactly alone in terms of playoff experience.
As youthful and inexperienced as the Rangers are, they still have some that have been there before. Justin Braun has the most playoff experience of any Ranger, with 100 games (84 with San Jose and 16 with Philadelphia), making it all the way to the final in 2016, only to fall to these same Penguins. Braun isn’t expected to dress tomorrow.
Qualifying for his 11th straight playoffs, Ryan Reaves has also been to the Cup Finals as part of the inaugural season with Gerard Gallant and the Vegas Golden Knights. He played 4 of the 5 games in the final series loss to the Capitals. All up Reaves has 84 games of playoff experience, 4 games more than Kreider who ranks third.
Then there’s Barclay Goodrow, brought into town on the back of back to back Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he also went to the Western Conference finals the year before with Braun and the Sharks, and is set to play in his 66th post season game tomorrow. It’s already evident that Goodrow has been upping his physical play in the last couple of weeks, including taking Evgeni Malkin out of the game with matching minors to lock up the final regular season game between to the two clubs.
Throw in Andrew Copp‘s 34 games, 31 from Zibanejad and 30 each for Panarin and Trouba – Copp and Trouba having both made it to the Western Conference Finals with the Jets as they lost to Gallant’s Golden Knights, and it’s clear there’s at least some experience out there.
And while Sammy Blais is unlikely to play any part in this post season, he also has a Cup to his name as part of the St Louis Blues.
Of course none of that matches up to the experience of the likes of Sidney Crosby – 169, Evgeni Malkin – 165, Kris Letang – 142, Jeff Carter – 126 or Bryan Boyle – 118, 58 of which were with the Rangers, who also are on all on the wrong side of 34.
Do the Penguins have another run in this core before they break up the gang, or will their results match the past three seasons in which they’ve been bundled out in the first round.
It may very well come down to how well the backend does for the Rangers. In net, the Rangers duo of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev have a combined 1 game of playoff experience, a lone lone by Shesterkin in the play-in series loss to Carolina in 2019. That’s not to say the Pneguins are much better off, with Casey DeSmith – 0 and Louis Domingue – 18 minutes, having even less. Even preferred starter Tristan Jarry, who suffered a foot injury late in April and is not available for Game 1, only has 7 games to his name. You’d have to say the Rangers have an edge there, even if DeSmith managed a .914 save percentage this season, though closer to .900 in the latter parts of the year.
While both teams can be explosive offensively, it’s their ability to restrict chances that is probably most important at this stage. The Rangers have tightened up since the holiday break back in December, and finished second in the league in terms of goals allowed, just 4 more than the league leading Hurricanes. The Penguins aren’t slouches in this category either, giving up 222 goals on the year, to finish fifth.
It’s remarkable to think that the Rangers achieved this with a defense that features four players 24 years or younger. The collective of Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Trouba, K’Andre Miller and Patrik Nemeth have a combined playoff resume of 64 games, with Trouba and Nemeth accounting for 58 of those games. Letang, Dumoulin – 80 and Heinen – 33 all have more than the Rangers’ leader in the category, Trouba – 30.
This youthful defensive corps is largely untested, and it will be interesting how they do in the grind of the playoffs. Fortunately they have size back there, with only Fox and Lindgren really on the smaller side, and even then Lindgren doesn’t find mixing it up. How they do under pressure will be telling. The Penguins aren’t particularly deep at defense themselves, mostly due to Cap constraints, but they clearly have the experience edge, though perhaps can be exploited by the Rangers.
Both teams generate much of their offense from their top line, with the Rangers relying more heavily on the PP. Pittsburgh were lead by Guentzel’s 40 goals, with Crosby adding 31, Rust 24 (in 60 games) and Malkin 20 in (40 games). 5v5 the Penguins have the edge with 181 goals on the season, to the Rangers 159, though New York improved in that area with the additions of Vatrano and Andrew Copp.
It’s another area to watch though, as the Penguins finished with the 3rd best PK on the season, and held the Rangers to just 1 goal on 6 opportunities across four games. While the Penguins’ PP was not quite as strong this year, it remains a weapon for them, especially when you consider Malkin was out for half the year, dragging down the man advantage in his absence.
The Penguins haven’t always been the best matchup for New York, having won 5 of the 7 series between the teams, and they won in the last matchup back in 2016, when they took the series 4-1, while outscoring New York by a margin of 21-10. The previous two series though saw the Rangers come back from a 3-1 deficit in 2014, and then a 4-1 series sweep in the following year when the Rangers posted their best regular season ever.
Hopefully this will be more like 2015 than some of the other series.