While the Pittsburgh Penguins might not admit it publicly, you have to believe secretly they are happy to be facing the New York Rangers as opposed to the Philadelphia Flyers. Let’s face it; the Rangers have the tendency to turn mere rookie goaltenders into Georges Vezina – just the cure the Penguins would seek in returning Marc-Andre Fleury to his Stanley Cup winning form.

Seriously, while the Penguins and Rangers were separated by 12 points in the Metropolitan Division standings, the two teams played about as evenly as two teams could play during the regular season. Both teams scored five goals in home wins and both teams suffered home shootout losses. The only difference is that the Rangers scored one more goal (13-12).

The Penguins fan will look to the brief playoff history between the two teams as an omen. Pittsburgh has won all four series against the Blueshirts – winning an astonishing 16 of 20 games.

Of course, an optimistic Rangers fan looks at the playoff history as just one more hill to climb. After all, there was a time when the Rangers never won Game 7s.

The 1989 series was a total no-contest that saw the Rangers limp into the playoffs after GM Phil Esposito fired Coach Michel Bergeron with two games left in the regular season and went behind the bench himself. With Bob Froese and John Vanbiesbrouck unable to stop the young Pens, Esposito turned to a minor league goaltender in Game 4. That is how the Mike Richter Era began as Pittsburgh swept the Rangers out of the playoffs.

The most heartbreaking of those losses came in 1992 when the Rangers entered the series with the best record in the NHL and bowed out in six games under wild circumstances that saw an injured Mark Messier miss Games 2 and 3, and Adam Graves suspended for four games after slashing Mario Lemieux in Game 3and breaking a bone in his wrist.

Despite missing Messier and Graves, the Rangers found themselves up two games to one and ahead 4-2 in Game 4. A few seconds after squandering a five-minute power play, and a chance to put the game away, Ron Francis beat Richter with a long-range shot to cut the lead in half. Jaromir Jagr knotted the game about 90 seconds later. Francis completed his hat trick in overtime as the Penguins would win the rest of their games on their way to winning their second Stanley Cup.

In 1996, the Rangers shook off losing their first two playoff games at home against Montreal to beat the Canadiens in six games – which was no small feat given the Blueshirts won all three games in Montreal after posting a 1-20-3 record previously.

If you thought Sidney Crosby was a master at diving then you missed some solid performances during the 1996 series. Kevin Lowe described the splish-splashing this way.

“It looked like a bowling alley out there,” Lowe explained to Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News.

“My old man used to tell me, if you ain’t dead, don’t lay there.”

In 2008 the Rangers hoped that Jagr’s switching of allegiances would end the losing to Pittsburgh.

Optimism was running high as the Blueshirts built up a three-goal lead in Game 1. However, Pittsburgh would twice score two goals in 20 seconds before Evgeni Malkin’s power play goal at 18:19 of the third period proved to be the game winner.

The Rangers prevented the sweep behind two Jagr goals and a 29-save shutout from Henrik Lundqvist.

Trailing 2-0 heading into the third period of Game 5, Lauri Korpikoski (in his NHL debut) and Nigel Dawes scored 82 seconds apart to tie the game early in the third period. Marian Hossa ended the Rangers season 7:10 into overtime.

The Rangers roster has undergone a significant transformation since that 2008 playoff loss. Only Lundqvist, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal remain on the team, while seven Penguins return.

As we enter this series, both teams will make a concerted effort to stay out of the penalty box. Neither team was particularly effective killing penalties (Pittsburgh: 74.1% – Rangers: 71.4%). The big difference is in the teams power play units (Pittsburgh: 20.7% – Rangers: 10.3%).

If (and it is a huge if) this series is determined by five-on-five play, then the Rangers have a slight edge (1.88 goals to 1.50 goals).

Therein lies the question, how will the series be called. Will the series be called straight down the line or will the “Screw-The-Rangers” rulebook be applied where Rangers players are knocked into opposing goaltenders and it is the Blueshirts who end up shorthanded.

The Penguins needed the extra time off to help heal injuries to some of their key support players. Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale suffered injuries in the Game 6 win against the Blue Jackets, but they did practice on Wednesday. Brian Gibbons has been out since Game 2.

On defense, Brooks Orpik missed the last two games of the Columbus series and Kris Letang is still trying to get his game back after missing time following his stroke in January.

Of course, NBC and the NHL did the Rangers no favors scheduling back-to-back games on Sunday night and Monday night. However, Gary Bettman does not deserve to take the hit all by himself. Cablevision has to share the blame as they have two New York Liberty WNBA games booked as well as Billy Joel’s monthly appearance at the Garden.

With all that said, you think clearer heads would have prevailed so that the Rangers would not have to face the prospect of six games in nine days and seven games in 11 days. I am sure something could have been done with the scheduling if NBS wasn’t so insistent on having the Rangers-Penguins available for two Sunday games.

Of course, the Rangers could have avoided the problem if they had been expeditious rather than taking seven games to dispose of the Flyers.

The biggest question for the black-and-gold comes not from the injury report but from between the pipes. Unlike the last two season when Fleury’s GAA (3.52 and 4.63) and SV% (.883 and .834) were more AHL journeyman like than they were of a Stanley Cup contender, his numbers this year (2.81 and .908) are acceptable.

With that said, Fleury still had a meltdown in the closing second of Game 4 when he FUBARed a puck behind the net that practically turned into an empty net goal for Brandon Dubinsky. Fleury then allowed a soft goal to Nick Foligno for the winner in overtime.

The Columbus-Pittsburgh series was unique in that winning team overcame a two-goal deficit in each of the first three games with the Blue Jackets erasing a three-goal deficit in Game 4 and nearly doing so again in Game 6.

You get the feeling that if the Rangers are to win this series it is going to mirror another New York-Pittsburgh playoff battle – the 1960 World Series. The Pirates won the Series in seven games as they outscored the Yankees by a combined 24-17 in their four wins. Conversely, the Yankees beat down the Pirates in their three wins – outscoring the Bucs 38-3. Let me do the math for you, the Yankees lost the World Series despite doubling the Pirates in runs (55-27).

In putting together the Keys to winning the Battle of the Keystone State Part Deux, we begin with two keys that are going to remain valid for as long as the Rangers stay alive in the playoffs.

The Rangers special teams have to be something special. It is one thing for the Blueshirts to win with a lackluster power play, but there is no way they can continue to win if they are going to continue struggling to kill penalties.

The second thing is that the Rangers best players have to continue to be their best players. They need more Game 7-like efforts out of Rick Nash the deeper the Rangers go in the playoffs and the top four defensemen are going to be tested every shift they match up against Crosby and Malkin. It is too much to ask for the Rangers to keep Crosby and Malkin under wraps like Columbus did for the first five games before Geno broke loose for three goals.

One interesting wrinkle is that Martin St. Louis is making his Rangers debut against the Penguins. MSL has averaged nearly a point a game in his career against Pittsburgh (47 points in 50 games).

Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers possible path to victory coming down to these keys.

1. Discipline – Against the Penguins the idea of discipline is really a three step process. It is obvious that the Rangers must stay out of the penalty box – especially with the officials always keeping a caring eye on Crosby.

The Rangers also have to be disciplined enough not to turn this game into a track meet. Unless Fleury is playing like a sieve, the Blueshirts do not have the offensive firepower to match the Penguins goal-for-goal in a high scoring series.

That leads me to my third point of discipline. The Rangers need to focus on their play in the second period of Game 7. That is the blueprint for beating the Penguins. The Rangers pressured the Flyers for the entire period with a relentless forecheck that keyed the Blueshirts offensive pressure.

2. Wilting the Flower – If the Rangers can maintain that focused forecheck, they are going to cause the Penguins to turn the puck over like the Flyers did. The pressure then falls squarely on the shoulders of Fleury. If the Penguins goaltender is unable to duplicate Steve Mason’s heroics, then the Rangers path to the Eastern Conference Finals gets much easier.

Odds are the Penguins will not use Tomas Vokoun as a fallback should Fleury implode. The Czech netminder was limited to just two AHL games as he battled back from blood clotting issues. While they might turn to him, it would be a lot to ask of him to save Pittsburgh’s season.

That leaves rookie goaltender Jeff Zatkoff as the only other alternative. The former Los Angeles Kings draft pick has just 20 NHL games under his belt.

The Rangers are going to have to create a lot traffic and havoc in front of Fleury so that he does not get comfortable in his crease. No, I am not saying they have to be physical with him just get him to the point where he constantly has to be in motion to the see puck and make saves.

They also need to get a lot of vulcanized rubber on net – and it has to be more than the Rangers usual variety of “casual shots from the perimeter that hit the goalie center mass”. In other words, they have to shoot the puck like they mean it and don’t look to over-pass the puck. Sometimes the best pass is a rebound off a shot on goal.

3. Breaking the Streak – In order for the Rangers to break their playoff losing streak to Pittsburgh (all four series) they must break their other playoff losing streak – 12 losses in a row when they have had a lead in a series. Teams that make deep runs in the playoffs do it by stringing together wins, not by alternating wins and losses. The streaks have to end sometime and in the Rangers case it might as well be sooner rather than later.

4. The Matchups – You can expect there to be a lot of cat-and-mouse strategy flying between the two coaches. Will Dan Bylsma try to get Crosby going by teaming him with Malkin? Which defensive pairing does Alain Vigneault use against the Crosby and Malkin lines (assuming they are kept apart)?

You can expect Bylsma to use the last change option at the CONSOL Energy Center in order to get one (if not both) of his star canters matched up against the John Moore-Kevin Klein pairing. Look for major ice time to be shared by Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman.

While not a matchup per se, you have to like the Rangers’ advantage in terms of the third and fourth line matchups – especially if Bylsma has to move Brandon Sutter up when he teams Crosby and Malkin together.

5. Best of Both Worlds – In an interesting twist given John Tortorella’s firing in Vancouver, the Rangers are going to need to meld the styles of play espoused by the last two coaches. They have to channel their inner Torts in terms of play in the defensive end and return to the shot-blocking monsters they were a couple of years ago. At the same time, they have to remember to embrace the offensive freedom that AV has installed.
As for my prediction, well, that is where I have a problem. My mind is saying that the Penguins will win the series, but my heart is saying the Rangers can find a win to prevail.

In the end the prediction is Penguins in seven as Crosby, Malkin and the guys in the striped shirts prove to be too much for the Rangers.

However, I do see a way for the Rangers to find a way to win. It involves the Blueshirts finding a way to end up ahead in the series following Sunday night. Being up three games to none would be golden, but a 2-1 lead will suffice. It sets the Rangers up with a chance to return to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 lead with the opportunity to end the series in five or six games. The longer the series goes, the more the odds shift to the Penguins.

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