The Rangers will return to New York for Friday’s game 5 with a handy 3-1 series lead, and a chance to close out their first round series against the Penguins in five games. You have to go back seven years, to 2008, when they beat the Devils 4-1 in the first round to find the last series that took less than six games for the Rangers to win.
Of course, it’s anything but a done deal. The Rangers only have to go back to last year, when they came back from a 1-3 deficit against the very same Penguins, to know that it can be done. Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Henrik Lundqvist were also around in 2009 when the Rangers blew their own 3-1 series lead to lose to the Capitals in seven games.
Pittsburgh for their part have thrown plenty at their opponents, forcing overtime last night, and losing Games 1 and 3 by a solitary goal. Marc-Andre Fleury has looked comfortable in goal, backing up a largely inexperienced defensive corps that has performed admirably under pressure.
It’s fair to say that the Rangers have looked the better team for the majority of the games, but that has not translated into anything even approaching to domination in the series. Derick Brassard readily admitted last night that the team has not been playing well, which has certainly been evident on the offensive side of the equation.
The power play in particular has been problematic, scoring just twice on seventeen occasions – by contrast the Penguns are two for ten, The inability to convert on numerous man advantages offered up by the indiscipline of the likes of Steve Downie, has lead to loss of momentum, and lack of confidence. With that said, the Penguins did come into the post season as the third best penalty killing unit, and are more apt to put pressure on the always fragile power play unit of the Rangers.
The play of Fleury has also caused several Rangers to be a little more tentative when taking shots, trying to go for the perfect placement, rather than simply getting things onto the net and looking for the secondary chance. Pittsburgh have for the most part protected their slot well, but both Rangers goals last night were the result of multiple opportunities generated off of a low percentage initial shot.
Defenseman Kevin Klein is 50/50 for tomorrow’s game per Alain Vigneault, and did not practice with the team today – although he did skate on his own. It would be tempting at this point to sit Klein out for one more game and go with the line-up that has gotten the Rangers this far. A win would give the key blueliner another few days of rest, though there’s always the risk that this series goes to 6 or 7 games.
For tomorrow night, you would have to expect that the Penguins are going to come out hard in the first period and try to take the game, and crowd away from their opponents. It worked fairly well in Game 4, but a Vigneault intermission speech got the Rangers out of their shells and back into the game. If the Rangers can weather that early pressure again, then Pittsburgh might fold quickly if the pressure is turned back on them.
Last night marked the first time in the series that the Penguins have scored the first goal of the game. In actual fact, it was the first time they’d scored in the opening period.
Evgeni Malkin was quoted as being 85 percent healthy, but he looks much worse than that, seemingly unable to put much on the puck and prone to losing it in traffic. Sidney Crosby has been a relative non-factor outside of Game 2, and only Fleury has been a consistently top performer.
Kevin Hayes became the first rookie to score his first playoff goal for the Rangers in Overtime since Don Murdoch did it back in 1978. Hayes has looked tentative ever since a solid performance in Game 1, and Vigneault hopes that the goal will help him relax a little.
The Rangers dominated the overtime period, but almost didn’t make it there after Henrik Lundqvist overplayed the puck late in regulation. Fortunately Dan Girardi corralled the puck just outside the crease, and his clearly attempt looped over the stick of Chris Kunitz who was standing just a few feet away.