The New York Rangers will be battling history and the National Hockey League when they face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Rangers lost their three previous playoff matchups against the Penguins and if you thought the officiating was inconsistent against the New Jersey Devils just wait until “He Who Must Be Babied” (aka Sidney Crosby) starts flopping to the ice and whining to the officials.

The Blueshirts will need to elevate their intensity and execution in the next round. They were able to get away with some of their mistakes and turnovers because the Devils do not posses a potent offense. The same cannot be said of the Pens.

Crosby is just one of the headaches the Rangers will face against Pittsburgh. The Penguins have two strong offensive lines in the Crosby-Marian Hossa-Pascal Dupuis line and the Evgeni Malkin-Petr Sykora-Ryan Malone line. In addition they have Sergei Gonchar, the NHL’s second highest scoring blueliner, patrolling the point.

Even if the Rangers do eliminate those mistakes and turnovers, they will not be able to get away with playing the way they did in the third period in Game 5 against the Devils. The Rangers retreated into a passive 1-2-2 defensive mode and practically shut down the forecheck that got them where they were. As a result, the Devils were able to dictate the tempo of the play.

The Rangers also must remember to stay out of the penalty box in the next round. The last thing they want to do is give the Penguins any more power play chances than necessary. This will be a problem in this series, not so much because of the Rangers, but because of the NHL’s need to sell the game on the back of Sidney Crosby.

While I wrote that the Devils series was about the Rangers being able to score goals, the Penguin series reverts back to the old adage of defense winning playoff games. The main part of that strategy will be in keeping the Pens off the power play, something Tom Renney knows all too well.

“They’ve got some terrific young players … their goaltending certainly seems to have nailed it throughout the course of the season,” the Blueshirts coach told Steve Zipay of Newsday. They’re one of those teams who will force you into mistakes by the pressure they apply offensively, so we have to be alert to those issues and try to keep a pretty good offensive team off the ice in terms of the power play.”

Renney has good reason to be concerned with the Pittsburgh power play. The Penguins power play which connected at a 20.4% clip (fourth in the NHL) has stepped up their play in the playoffs as they are now at 26.1% (third in the playoffs). While that increase does not seem to be much of a surprise, the Penguins penalty killing numbers are a different story.

Pittsburgh was ranked 23rd in penalty killing (81.0%) during the regular season. However, they have done a complete turnaround in the playoffs as they have the best penalty killing percentage (92.3%).

Of course, some of these playoff numbers have be taken with a grain of salt given Pittsburgh’s opponent in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals – something many in the media are not doing when it comes to analyzing the Rangers-Penguins series.

Many in the media are pointing to Pittsburgh’s four game sweep over Ottawa as the coronation of King Crosby and the Penguins. However, the Senators were pretty much dead team skating as they hung on the make the playoffs. Injuries and inconsistent goaltending doomed any chance Ottawa had in the playoffs.

While the Penguins get the edge when it comes to offense, the Rangers have to get the edge in terms of defense. Yes, the Rangers do not have a stud defenseman on the blue line, but when discussing their defensive corps the sum is better than the parts. This is not to slight the Penguins because Michael Therrien’s team finished third among the Eastern Conference teams in goals allowed with 216. The Rangers finished second with 199.

As you might expect, the series will come down to goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist’s play against the Devils provided a perfect example as to why The King earned his third consecutive Vezina Trophy nomination. However, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has been displaying the skills that made him the first overall selection in 2003.

Fleury is 14-3 in his last 17 decisions, including the sweep of Ottawa in the first round of the playoffs. During that streak, he has allowed more than two goals just twice.

Against the Rangers Fleury was 2-3, but two of those losses came in overtime – and he posted a 2.19 GAA against the Blueshirts. For comparison, Lundqvist was 5-3 with a 1.87 GAA.

During the regular season series, the Rangers outscored the Penguins 21-16. The more telling stat is how the Rangers special teams outplayed Pittsburgh. The Penguins scored five power play goals on 35 chances (14.3%) while the Rangers scored nine power play goals on 42 chances (21.4%). Each team scored a shorthanded goal.

While the 2007-2008 regular season went the Rangers way, history has not been so kind for the Blueshirts in playoff matchups with the Penguins. The Rangers were swept in the two team first ever matchup in the 1989 Division Semifinals as the Pens outscored the Rangers 19-11. In 1996, Pittsburgh scored a five game victory in the Conference Semifinals outscoring the Blueshirts 21-15. In that series, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr skated roughshod over the Rangers as they combined for 19 points.

Then there is 1992. The Rangers won the President’s Trophy in Mark Messier’s first year in New York. Expectations were running high in the hopes that 1940 would be erased. A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to winning the Stanley Cup as the Penguins eliminated the Rangers in the Division Finals in six games with Pittsburgh again holding the goal advantage (24-19).

Taking everything into consideration, players, coaches, statistics, past trends, this series might just come down to which team is bet able to shake off the rust from their long playoff break. The Penguins will have had eight days off and the Rangers six days off. Last year the Rangers spotted Buffalo the first two games before tying the series up at the Garden. If the Rangers can gain a split in Pittsburgh, they return to the Garden where they won all four games against the Penguins.

However, gaining a split will not be easy because Pittsburgh has a 10 game home winning streak on the line. Then again, the Rangers are 3-0 on the road in the playoffs.

One interesting thing to note is how each team responds to falling behind in a game. Pittsburgh trailed Ottawa for a grand total of 4:28 in their series while the Rangers only trailed for 15:10 against New Jersey.

ON THE FLY

There will be many subtexts in this series:

1. Penguins GM Ray Shero is no stranger to Madison Square Garden given his father Fred Shero’s days as GM/Coach of the Blueshirts.

2. Another Penguin who will be having a homecoming of sorts is Syosset, NY native Rob Scuderi. Prior to going to Boston College, the blueliner played for the NY Apple Core program.

3. It is the first, of what should be many, playoff matchups between Marc and Jordan Staal. In addition, Marc Staal will be “reunited” with fellow Team Canada teammate Kris Letang. The two defensemen were part of the 2006 and 2007 teams that won gold at the World Junior Championship.

4. Jagr may very well be making his final NHL appearances in Pittsburgh. If you thought he has been booed in the past, just wait until Friday night.

5. The Rangers captain is not the only player in this series who has ties to their opponent. Dupuis, Sykora and Adam Hall were all Rangers and Michal Rozsival and Martin Straka were members of the Penguins. Even Glen Sather has ties back to his playing days as a member of the Penguins.

6. Of course, there is what should be the most entertaining matchup of all. Sean Avery and Jarkko Ruuutu will be battling for the title of uber-pest. Toss in Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts will be on hand to stir the pot as well. It will be interesting to see if Renney dresses Colton Orr. During the regular season, Renney often used the HBO Line against Sidney Crosby. The coach must decide if Orr is fit enough to face the extended ice time he might see. Does Renney look to keep Ryan Hollweg in the lineup as well to counter the aforementioned Pens?

7. Renney also has to find a way to keep Jagr away from Hal Gill and Brooks Orpik because Therrien will be looking for that matchup. Does Renney look to move Jagr from line to line or does he give him extra shifts or does he just stay the course and run his four lines as usual?

8. Faceoffs will be a key to a potential Rangers victory. Crosby (48.0%), Malkin (34.1%) and Maxime Talbot (44.1%) have not been strong on faceoffs. Pittsburgh’s best has been Jordan Staal (52.9%) and Tyler Kennedy (50.0%). Conversely, three Rangers centers are over 50% – Scott Gomez (53.1%), Brandon Dubinsky (51.0%) and Blair Betts (50.0%). Surprisingly, Chris Drury (39.4%) has been poor on faceoffs – even though he had as solid Game 1.

9. According to John Dellapina of the Daily News, Games 1 and 4 will be broadcast on Versus only in the New York area. Games 2 and 5 will only be broadcast by NBC. Games 3, 6 and 7 will be on MSG.

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