by Eric Vecchione
It’s been about 36 hours since Joffrey Lupul’s OT winner against Cristobal Huet of the Capitals determined that the Rangers would face the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals. And it’s been about 35 hours since nearly every hockey pundit on both sides of the border started calling this series for Pittsburgh.
For the Rangers, that couldn’t be better.
While not having done anything to warrant it, the Rangers are being underestimated heading into this second-round matchup, and that’s precisely what they want to be. With nearly the entire hockey world expecting the Penguins and NHL poster boy Sidney Crosby to dispose of the Rangers in five or six games, Tom Renney’s crew is poised to pull an ‘upset’ of the 2nd seed just by virtue of being the same team they’ve been for the past three playoff series – a stifling, committed, opportunistic club built for the playoffs.
It’s easy to get the feeling when reading various predictions that these so-called experts haven’t in fact watched the teams they ruminate on. And in fact, that’s probably true. These guys have other things to do. It’d be far too much to ask John Buccigross to take a time out from writing about his irrelevant music tastes, or get Scott Burnside to stop using the adjective ‘wobbly’ to describe every poor performance by a goaltender, and become more versed in every club in the playoffs. But I digress. Still though, it shouldn’t take days of studying footage to know that Henrik Lundqvist is a better goalie than Marc-Andre Fleury.
Or maybe it does, for the folks at The Hockey News. In any case, predictions are predictions, they’re made, they’re often incorrect, and they’re forgotten. However the near-unanimous consent for a Penguins victory benefits the Rangers, as the burden of expectation will be on Pittsburgh. They have the names, the have the flash. But do they have the substance to win this time of year?
The Rangers are a deeper team than the Penguins, who rely on four forwards (albeit two of the best in the game) ‘ Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa, and Ryan Malone ’ for offense. (I’m purposely omitting Petr Sykora here, because Ranger fans have witnessed that firsthand.) While the Rangers don’t have the out-and-out firepower to match that foursome, they get production from their entire lineup, and their defensive-minded strategy is a winning one in the second season. The Rangers’ defense has proven it can shut down opposing teams’ top players, which will put pressure on the Penguins secondary players to perform. The Rangers’ offense, while statistically meek, also isn’t without talent. The Blueshirts have plenty of players who can put the puck in the net, and it’s that balance that served them well in the first round (11 different players scoring) and will be vital for their success going forward.
Some of the recent coverage of the Penguins has been more worthy of the Chinese media than leading American sports outlets. Rangers castoffs Jeff Taffe and Pascal Dupuis have morphed into ‘viable two-way forwards’ while Hal Gill and Brooks Orpik have suddenly become Scott Stevens and Rob Blake circa-1999. Even Sykora has turned into a ‘sniper.’
That’s not to say this series will be easy. Containing two of the best players on the planet long enough to win four games is a daunting task. But the Rangers will be prepared. The Blueshirts have a greater commitment to defense, a superior netminder, and more experience. The Penguins’ veteran leadership amounts to a never-won-anything Sergei Gonchar and a he’s-really-still-playing? Gary Roberts, which might not be enough to steady the squad when the adversity arrives.
The Rangers aren’t getting any younger, but they do have what is looking like the perfect blend of veteran experience, youthful exuberance, solid defense, and game-stealing goaltending. Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, and Brendan Shanahan have all been there and back again, and nothing will come as surprise. The Rangers will be ready, resolute, and will not be rattled. It’s uncertain if the same can be said for the Penguins.
The NHL playoffs are renowned for having disposed of many a flashy offensive team over the years. It’s defense and goaltending, coupled with a balance of experience of youth, that wins Stanley Cups. And that’s why the Rangers, hockey’s Rodney Dangerfield, will win this series.