PITTSBURGH (AP) Marc Staal noticed the gaudy record, the highlight reel goals, the unrelenting speed and can’t help but be impressed with the way the Pittsburgh Penguins have ripped through the NHL over the last three months.
Yet the veteran New York Rangers defenseman has seen it before. Many times. So he’s not caught up in the narrative about the new and improved Penguins as their best-of-seven first round series begins on Wednesday.
“They’ve been playing really well, as much as the regular season matters,” Staal said. “I feel like once the puck drops in Game 1 in the playoffs, things change. It’s a different game and a different type of hockey.”
One the Rangers have proven adept at, particularly when facing Pittsburgh.
New York rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2014 to beat the Penguins in Game 7, a comeback that led to a full-blown identity crisis in Pittsburgh. The Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma in the aftermath, leading to Mike Johnston’s lethargic and brief tenure that included a well-played but ultimately one-sided loss to the Rangers in the opening round last spring.
The professorial Johnston is gone now, jettisoned in mid-December for the decidedly more dynamic Mike Sullivan. After a sluggish transition, Pittsburgh finished with a 14-2 flourish to rocket up to second place in the competitive Metropolitan Division, invigorated by an emphasis on quick feet, better decision making and spectacular play by captain Sidney Crosby and tireless defenseman Kris Letang.
Now it’s time to find out if that responsibly freewheeling style can translate to the postseason, where referee’s whistles tend to get buried in their pockets and the ice tends to get clogged by the kind of tugging and grabbing that typically goes unpunished.
“The playoffs are always tighter,” said Crosby, limited to three goals by New York during the previous two postseason meetings. “Hopefully we can use our speed to create chances and if not, create power plays.”
If not, Pittsburgh’s promising surge may come to an abrupt halt by the guys in blue sweaters once again. Some other things to look for as the Penguins and Rangers get ready for the next chapter in a showdown that’s becoming a rite of spring:
FLOWER POWER? Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury kept the team afloat through the first three months but is dealing with his second concussion in less than four months. He hasn’t played since March 31, though he did practice in the run-up to Game 1. If Fleury is limited early, the Penguins will turn to lightly used Jeff Zatkoff, relegated to third-string after the rise of rookie Matt Murray, who is recovering from a concussion sustained over the weekend in Philadelphia. Zatkoff has played in just five games since Jan. 1.
LONG LIVE THE KING?: The Rangers earned a sixth straight postseason appearance despite a so-so year by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose 2.48 goals against average was the highest of his remarkable career. He managed to lead the NHL in shots against and saves for the first time, though that’s more a testament to New York’s uneven defense than anything else.
Lundqvist doesn’t exactly enter the run to the Stanley Cup on a hot streak, getting pulled twice in his last five starts. Not that it seems to matter against the Penguins, who have scored more than two goals in a game just once against Lundqvist during their previous two playoff meetings. “Parts of this season he was probably the best goaltender in the league,” New York coach Alain Vigneault said. “His will to win, you can’t measure it.”
ROLLING IN THE DEEP: The Penguins have made it a point to give Crosby and injured center Evgeni Malkin some help last summer, trading for Phil Kessel and bringing in veterans like Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr while fresh young legs from the club’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The results have been startling over the final six weeks. Pittsburgh averaged more than four goals a game during its closing stretch by playing with the “desperation” Crosby said was missing until Sullivan came along.
MENTAL ADVANTAGE: The Rangers are trying to downplay their recent postseason mastery over the Penguins, insisting that it won’t matter when the puck is dropped on Wednesday.
“They have different players, we have different players,” Staal said. “Things change. You have to find a way to do it in a new way every year … when you get on the ice, you’re not thinking about last year, you’re thinking about winning that shift.”