Penguins vs Rangers: 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs second-round preview and prediction

Both teams won twice in the season-series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers.

And the Rangers, Penguins both, have escaped the first-round victorious for two straight seasons. It’s actually been three straight for the Rangers.

Both clubs have made the Conference Final recently, and lost. The Penguins were swept in round-three by the Bruins one year ago. The Devils eliminated the Rangers in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final.

It’s quite possible that the Conference Finals this year may be exactly the same as they were last year. One year ago the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings met in the Western Final and the Bruins played the Penguins in the East. The brackets allow for a repeat final four. Except, does anyone have confidence in the Penguins right now?

My cousin is a hard-core Penguins fan. He won’t like what I’m about to say. The Pittsburgh Penguins are missing an ingredient that will prevent them from winning the Cup this year.

Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, Pittsburgh has repeatedly disappointed in the postseason. Sure, their roster features the two best offensive players in the world, Crosby and Malkin, but the league has evolved. No longer is Pittsburgh competing with the Sabres, Hurricanes and Senators as best team in the East.

A new class of defensively sound clubs have emerged as the East’s top teams: the Bruins, Rangers and Montreal Canadiens leading that charge.

What is it that the Penguins are missing? A trustworthy starting goaltender. Team depth. And strong defensive habits that are conducive to winning the Cup.

Defence wins the day in the NHL. Offensive teams do well in the playoffs, but only if they’re also strong defensively. The 2013 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks were the NHL’s second best offensive team. However, they also led the league in goals against.

The Rangers are the better defensive team in their second-round series against the Penguins. They allowed less goals in the regular season than Pittsburgh. And in the first-round, the Rangers weren’t coughing up 3-1 leads left-right-and centre.

In goal, Rangers net minder Henrik Lundqvist is widely regarded as one of the best goaltenders in the world. Conversely, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is best known for poor playoff performances.

Strong defence is crucial in the postseason. Games are tight. Teams with good defensive habits and structure seem to have success in the Cup tournament because it’s easier for them to adapt to the stingy style that dominates the playoffs.

The past four Stanley Cup champions have all been top five defensive teams in the National Hockey League: ’13 Blackhawks (1st), ’12 Kings (2nd), ’11 Bruins (3rd), ’10 Blackhawks (5th). The New York Rangers finished the regular season fifth in goals against. Good omen for the Blueshirts.

The Rangers blue line, to a man, is a solid group. Years of John Tortorella behind the bench instilled hard-working habits in that defence corps. They make the safe play often and they block a lot of shots. They were excellent in some of the first-round games they played versus the Philadelphia Flyers.

But the Rangers had trouble against Philly, at times. And although the Penguins are missing something conducive to winning the Cup (in my opinion), they do possess the ability to play at a higher level than most teams, including New York. That’s what makes this series so difficult to predict.

If the Rangers can barely handle the Flyers, what does that mean for their chances against Pittsburgh?

That being said, the Penguins looked less than complete against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first-round. They won the series, but all throughout, the same issues that have plagued Pittsburgh in recent postseasons reared their head. Even in the sixth game, when the Pens eliminated Columbus, they almost blew a 4-0 lead, allowing three goals against in the final ten minutes of the third-period. Good thing they had a 4-0 lead.

At times in the first-round the Penguins put on a puck possession, offensive zone pressure clinic. They have a cohesiveness whilst controlling the puck that is perhaps second to only the Blackhawks out West. But unlike the Blackhawks, Pittsburgh can’t seem to hold a lead.

Sal’s Prediction: Rangers in 6.

I expect close games all throughout. I’ve bought into the defence wins in the postseason trends, which is why I chose the Rangers in the first-round and the Canadiens, as well. I’m sticking to it. I think the Rangers’ good defensive habits will prevail over Pittsburgh’s flash and firepower.