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First-round preview: New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins meet in Round 1 in a rematch of the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals, but plenty has changed since last spring. What was considered a clash of two of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference last year looks a bit more lopsided this time around, with the Rangers snagging the Presidents' Trophy and the Penguins just barely sneaking into the playoffs following an abysmal stretch.


Hard to count out any team that boasts superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, though. Playing the underdog role is uncharted territory for Pittsburgh, but it may not be the worst thing in the world for the Pens. Perhaps a little less pressure helps their cause as the team tries to upset the Blueshirts and advance to the second round.


Fancy stats

Beyond the 113 points amassed this season, there are a few other impressive numbers to note when it comes to the Rangers' superlative season. First is their staggering plus-60 goal differential from the regular season. No other team really came close to matching that; Tampa Bay finished with a plus-50 and St. Louis posted a plus-47, but the Rangers' mark blew most others out of the water.


Second is the 39 points the Rangers accrued during the six-week stretch while star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was out with a frightening vascular injury. Remarkably, the team went 18-4-3 while the former Vezina Trophy winner was sidelined -- a testament to both the stellar play of backup Cam Talbot and also the club's impressive depth.


"They're deep. They have a really good hockey team," Ottawa Senators forward Clarke MacArthur said after facing the Rangers last week.


Possession-wise, the Rangers were not dazzling, however, controlling only 49.5 percent of shot attempts at even strength. By comparison the Pens fared much better in these metric, finishing fifth in the league at 52.8 (then again, the Los Angeles Kings finished first in this department and missed the playoffs entirely).


The Pens also have the edge in special teams. Pittsburgh boasts one of the league's best penalty kills with an 84.8 percent success rate. The unit owes much of its success to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (according to Hockeyanalysis.com, Pittsburgh has the highest short-handed save percentage at .912). Pittsburgh is also known to possess one of the most fearsome and dynamic power plays in the league, though the injury to defenseman Kris Letang is a game-changer. Letang, who manned the point on the team's first unit, is sidelined indefinitely with a concussion.


Gut check
It's hard to imagine many folks will be picking against the Rangers in this one, especially with how feeble the Penguins looked in the final weeks of the regular season. Whereas the Rangers cruised through to finish atop the league standings, the Penguins limped their way to the finish line before punching their playoff ticket on the very last day of the regular season.


It's only fair to mention, however, that Pittsburgh was absolutely ravaged by injuries to its back end. In addition to Letang's absence, the Penguins were also without blueliners Christian Ehrhoff, Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot in Saturday's season finale against the Buffalo Sabres, forcing coach Mike Johnston to roll only five defensemen. But for guys like Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi, who have had to do much of the heavy lifting with the back end banged up, help is on the way. Because the salary cap restrictions are lifted during the playoffs, the Penguins can at least use their call-ups to bolster their ranks while players are on the mend.


MVP
Rick Nash had a sensational 2014-15 season on Broadway, though he has previously struggled in the postseason as a Ranger. If he can produce as he did in the regular season, when he scored a career-high 42 goals, then the Blueshirts are in good shape. Combine that with the strong play of Lundqvist since returning from injury, and New York could be poised for a deep run.


That's a daunting duo, to be sure, but there are few tandems more dynamic and fearsome than that of Crosby and Malkin when both are healthy. Malkin has been in and out of the lineup recently but still poured in 28 goals and put up 70 points in 69 games this season. Crosby has had to shoulder the workload offensively -- No. 87 finished with 84 points in 77 games -- but enters the postseason with something he was missing last spring: good health. After he was criticized for scoring only one goal in 13 playoff games last spring, it was revealed that he was playing through a wrist injury.


Secret weapon
For the Rangers, one of the most pleasant surprises has been the emergence of forward Kevin Hayes. The 22-year-old rookie finished the regular season with 17 goals and 45 points, six of which came in the last four games. Said one Eastern Conference scout: "His game is really coming along." For the Penguins, Brandon Sutter delivered a clutch two-goal performance to lead the Penguins' clinching efforts against the Sabres, giving him his second 20-goal season of his career. The 26-year-old center last reached that benchmark during the 2009-10 season with the Carolina Hurricanes.


The Skinny
The Rangers will win this series, though maybe not as handily as many might think. I'm predicting Fleury will shake the demons from postseasons past and continue what has been an impressive 2014-15 campaign, though it won't be enough against a loaded Rangers team with depth, balance and speed. Coach Alain Vigneault deserves some credit here, too, for what he has done with this squad since his arrival last season. Rangers in 6.

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sportsespn2014 15 playoffsnhl playoffsalain vigneaultmarc andre fleurynhlpittsburgh penguinsnew york rangerskevin hayesevgeni malkinhenrik lundqvistkris letangrick nashsidney crosby
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