Although the series wasn’t as smooth as many – including this writer – anticipated, the Pittsburgh Penguins are through to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs after dispatching the Columbus Blue Jackets in six thrilling games.
You might recall several City of Champions staffers tried their hands at predicting the NHL’s opening round, so let’s look back at those results before turning our eyes to Game 1 of Penguins-Rangers. If we award three points for picking the winner and an extra point for getting the number of games correct, here’s how the standings look:
Congratulations to Larry, who picked every series correctly, including the exact number of games in victories by the Wild and Kings. Matt Shetler nailed seven out of eight, plus bonus points in wins by the Rangers, Blackhawks and Kings. Hunter had the most exactly right: Rangers in seven, Blackhawks in six, Ducks in six, Kings in seven.
(Who’s that guy in last place, though? Boy was he ever off.)
As far as Penguins-Rangers goes, I envision a similar scenario to last year. Much like Pittsburgh had to battle through a difficult first-round series against the young, hungry Islanders in 2013, the Pens faced a similar scenario this year vs. Columbus.
It’s been obscured by the disappointment in the Eastern Conference final, but the Penguins were dominant in their second-round matchup with Ottawa last May. The Senators were fortunate to win a single game then, and while I see the Rangers as a stronger opponent, I think we’re about to see the Pens take flight.
Dan Bylsma said the Penguins played their best two games of the season to close out the Jackets. The possession numbers reflect that, as Pittsburgh had the second-best shot-attempt rate in the first round (57 percent), behind only the Wild.
In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t let a fluke bounce in Game 4 get the better of him; he went on to post a .948 save percentage at even strength, the third-best number among playoff netminders. Also, Sidney Crosby had among the best shots-for rates in among forwards, and we all saw Evgeni Malkin‘s Game 6 eruption.
The Rangers have a mobile defense, quick forwards and one of the game’s best goalies in Henrik Lundqvist. They’ll push Pittsburgh, but ultimately I see the Penguins advancing in five games.
My other second-round predictions: Canadiens in seven, Kings in six, Blackhawks in six.
Matt Shetler: The good news for the Penguins is that Crosby won’t be held in check two series in a row. I expect some big things from the Penguins’ top players, but will it be enough? The Pens split their four games with New York this season and they are facing a team that is very good killing penalties (third in regular season) and most importantly good at preventing goals (fourth in goals against).
It could come down to whichever team performs best in the special-teams department, in which case there are parts of both teams that I like. However, I’m looking in net and as big of a supporter I am of Fleury, if I am a betting man, I am putting my money on Lundqvist here. He will be the difference in a very tight series.
Before the playoffs began I said the Pens would fall to the Rangers and I am sticking with the unpopular pick. Rangers in seven, Bruins in six, Ducks in seven, Blackhawks in six.
Snyder: The Penguins will need to play like they did in Games 5 and 6 in the Blue Jackets series. One example is defenseman Kris Letang, who found his game when he was paired with Paul Martin. He scored his only goal in Game 5 when paired with Martin. Letang elevated his game where it needed to be in the playoffs.
Never mind about the third and fourth lines providing offense, it is time for Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and James Neal to increase their goal output. While Malkin had a hat trick in Game 6 to lead the Penguins to victory, those were his first and only goals of the series.
Kunitz and Neal combined for three goals. Meanwhile, Crosby did not score and has gone 11 postseason games without a goal, dating to the second round against the Senators last season. Penguins in six, Bruins in six, Kings in seven, Blackhawks in six.
Drew Shetler: I see the Penguins learning a lesson from Round 1 and playing better hockey. In order for this to happen the Pens have to get off to a hot start and win both games at home. They have to show their dominance and not let up. The Rangers are playing five games in seven days, they are going to be tired and the Pens need to take advantage of that. Penguins in six, Bruins in seven, Ducks in seven, Blackhawks in five.
Tunno: Crosby and Malkin both come out in full force and the Rangers just can’t match them. The Pens will need to crack Lundqvist early and often. I can see every game being a nail-biter but I look for the “two-headed monster” plus Neal to carry the Penguins in six, Canadiens in seven, Kings in seven, Blackhawks in six.