Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Round one playoff preview

Metropolitan Division

The Metro is home to the Presidents' Trophy winner and trendy Cup favorite. Those are two different teams, by the way.

#2 Penguins vs. #3 Rangers

In this corner: The hottest team in the league. The Penguins (48-26-8, +42) have been a different group since Mike Sullivan took over as coach, roaring down the stretch to grab the Metro's second seed.

And in this corner: The Rangers (46-27-9, +18) have been one of the league's most consistent teams over the last five seasons, and have gone to at least the second round every year since 2011.

Dominant narrative: Goaltending. We don't know who's going in net for the Penguins, where starter Marc-Andre Fleury is apparently back but has been battling a concussion, rookie Matt Murray seemed to suffer a head injury in the team's final game, and Jeff Zatkoff has never played a minute in the postseason. Even if Fleury is back, Henrik Lundqvist gives the Rangers a big edge in goal. Big enough to steal the series? Quite possibly, yeah.

The big question: Is the Rangers' window closing? They've been to the conference finals in three of the last four seasons, but the core is an old one. Rangers fans will push back on that, and it's true that the team has some young talent (every team has some young talent). But Lundqvist is 34, and Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Derick Brassard, Marc Staal and Mats Zuccarello are all 28 or older. In today's NHL, that's old. Not "take them out behind the barn" old, no, but definitely "the point of diminishing returns" old. If the Rangers can't win this year, how do they get closer to a Cup next year, or the year after? At some point, they'll have to hit the reset button.

One player to watch: Dan Girardi. With Ryan McDonagh apparently out to start the series, Girardi will have a greater role. That's not good news for New York, since Girardi has struggled badly at times this year. If he can't hold his own against the Penguins' snipers, this one could get ugly.

Key number: 0.59—Career goals-per-game in the playoffs by Phil Kessel. Despite his reputation as a soft player who doesn't come through in big moments, Kessel actually ranks first among all active players in the category.

Prediction: Penguins in 5.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Pittsburgh ends the series with an overtime win, at which point Lundqvist reminds us all that nobody in hockey pulls off a better "devastated goaltender reaction" than he can.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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