NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs: New York Rangers vs Pittsburgh Penguins series preview and predictions
As the NHL playoffs start, the focus turns to the #2 vs #3 matchup in the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference between the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Save for a few games in which the Rangers were pushing the Hurricanes for the lead in the division, these teams were slated to face each other in the 1st round for the past few weeks, with the Rangers locked in to having the all-important home-ice advantage.
Much like the other #2 and #3 teams in the other divisions, these teams are very familiar with each other, especially near the end of the season as they played 3 times in their last 20 games. With the stage set, let’s break down the teams and look at the best bet for the series.
Breaking down the New York Rangers
It would be wrong to start the Rangers’ breakdown with anyone other than the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy for the best goalie in the NHL, Igor Shesterkin. There is no goalie controversy on who will be starting the series for the Blue Shirts. Shesterkin leads the league in save percentage with a mark of .935 and goals against average of 2.07, for any goalie with 10 or more games played. The advanced stats loved Shesterkin even more as he was the top goalie in the league in goals saved above expected. Shesterkin has the ability to not only steal a game if his team is playing poorly, but win an entire series.
The Rangers weren’t the best at keeping pressure away from the net as they ranked 15th in expected goals against. However, due to the brilliance of Shesterkin, they finished the season ranked 2nd in goals against. Offensively, they have been a below-average team. They didn’t push the play on the attack, ranking 28th in expected goals, but did manage to capitalize on the chances they did create, as they finished 16th in goals. The offense does have talent, though, led by top goalscorer, Chris Kreider who buried 52 goals on the season, and leading pointscorer, Artemi Panarin, who had 96 points.
The Rangers will only go as far as Shesterkin will take them. The team is solid, but if Shesterkin falls apart, the Rangers could be knocked out before you know it.
Breaking down the Pittsburgh Penguins
Death, taxes, and the Pittsburgh Penguins making the postseason. They have been 3 guarantees in life for the past 15 years. The Penguins’ 15 straight playoff appearances is the longest active playoff streak in major professional sports in North America. The majority of those playoff runs have been due to core players Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. The negative is that the core is no longer young, as all 3 players are 34+, with Crosby turning 35 this summer. Throw in 3rd-line center Jeff Carter, who is 37, and a good portion of their main contributors are on the back end of their career.
This season was still productive for the team. Offensively, the Penguins were a borderline top-10 team. The pressure they applied on offense was consistent, as they ranked 7th in expected goals. All that pressure led to great scoring chances, and with their talent, the Penguins took advantage, ranking 11th in goals. Defensively, the Penguins will need to step up their game as it looks like starting goalie Tristan Jarry may miss some time in the playoffs due to injury. The Penguins were solid, ranking 5th in expected goals against and goals allowed, but that was with a healthy Jarry in net. Instead, the Penguins will likely have to turn to Casey DeSmith, who isn’t bad, but he is a large drop-off from Jarry. Jarry ranked 19th in goals saved above expected while DeSmith was 49th.
With a giant question mark in net to start the playoffs, the Penguins will have to lean on their experience from numerous past playoff series and hope their aging core can hold up.
New York Rangers vs Pittsburgh Penguins series prediction: Rangers 4-1
During the season, the Rangers took 3 of 4 games from the Penguins, with all 3 wins coming in late March and early April. I just can’t bet against the best goalie in the league, so I’m taking Shesterkin and the Rangers -105 to win the series.
An aging Penguins core scored only 4 goals in 4 games against the Rangers this season, which doesn’t trend in the Penguins favor for winning this series. I also have more confidence in the Rangers being able to beat DeSmith and the Penguins, as they scored 11 goals in the 4 games they played this year.