It’s an Eastern Conference clash of titans, and also a clash of opposing styles.
The Rangers are built from the net out, a skilled team that put a major focus on heavy hockey last offseason and one that succeeds on special teams. The Penguins are fast and skilled, relying on speed more than braun.
It will be an interesting series for a number of reasons, but one of the areas of intrigue right off the bat: How big a decider will New York’s ‘heaviness’ be? Factoring for the difference in size and tenacity between these two teams creates the biggest HeavyScore adjustment of any first-round series — an adjustment that would give the Rangers the edge.
Based on the talent on both sides and on how each team has played through the season, it’s not hard to see why the Penguins would be favoured — even without home ice advantage (or their starting goalie). Being a stronger five-on-five team usually leads to more sustainable playoff success. That’s especially true against a team that’s so heavily reliant on goaltending.
With that being said, these two teams are trending in opposite directions over the last month and the Rangers have had the better of the head-to-head matchup this year. Neither factor is considered in forming the probabilities listed above, but they are worth keeping in mind.
That’s where the HeavyScore adjustment comes in. If you are of the belief that physicality can really tilt the scales in the playoffs, this series should be one to help prove that theory. Without the adjustment the Penguins are a slight favourite, but that edge evaporates completely when factoring for the size discrepancy. The Rangers are the sixth heaviest team in the playoffs, while the Penguins rank dead last.
Are the Penguins too small and soft to win this series? We have our doubts that’s the case, but the size difference between these two teams is large enough to consider HeavyScore as a factor. It could be enough of a difference for the Rangers to overcome Pittsburgh’s edge elsewhere.
A major reason behind the Penguins’ edge is five-on-five offense. Pittsburgh doesn’t reach the heights of some of the best in the league in its chance generation, but they’re just a tier below and have made improvements over the last month.
The Rangers, on the other hand, based on their season-wide numbers, look like anything but a contender. They finished above expectations throughout the season, but their underlying metrics didn’t match their results, especially pre-deadline. A few key forward additions have led to late-season improvement with stretches of sustained pressure and a more rush-based offense.
Where their play has really trended up has been in their own zone. Through much of the season, the Rangers allowed a high rate of shots against and were one of the worst teams in allowing scoring chances off the rush. They’ve taken late-season strides in their own zone, ranking as one of the best teams over the last month. That’s given their goaltending, which masked deficits in this category earlier in the season, more support.
The Penguins have trended in the opposite direction lately, going from an elite defensive team to one that’s closer to middle of the road. At least their goaltending has been fine — though that’s now a huge question mark.
The special teams battle is interesting. The Penguins’ finishing hasn’t matched their ability to create offense on the advantage and that’s only gotten worse over the last month. Now, the Penguins power play will face a penalty kill that’s taken serious strides of late — especially when it comes to shot limitation. On the other side, there’s the Penguins’ structured penalty kill that performed really well through much of the season, but has slipped over the last month. Luckily for them, the Rangers’ excellent power play has also trailed off of late.
That said, the power play has been an essential and consistent source of offense for the Rangers and shouldn’t be counted on to stay cold, so Pittsburgh will need to regain its form on the penalty kill.
The Rangers have been defined by their strength in net for over a decade. That’s no different this year with Igor Shesterkin standing on his head as the team’s most valuable player — and the league’s most valuable goalie at 5.9 wins, according to the model. He finished the season as the league leader in goals saved above expected with 37.2, nine more than the next best. Even when he didn’t have the support of the team in front of him, he gave the Rangers a chance to win in 38 games with a quality start – or 73 percent of his starts this season. Plus, he finished second in the league behind only Juuse Saros with 10 steals on the season.
Sometimes all a team needs is a hot goaltender to steal a series, but in those cases “hot” is essentially Shesterkin’s baseline. He’s always hot and when he’s at his best he’s basically the 10th wing on Hot Ones. An inferno of heat. While his play came back to earth a bit in March, he’s rebounded and is back to the level needed to give the Rangers a legitimate shot this postseason.
The Penguins, and any other team for that matter, are going to lose the goaltending battle almost every time against the Rangers. Shesterkin is the best in the league, so beating the Rangers means winning in other areas.
The unfortunate thing for the Penguins is that the massive gap in net would’ve at least been a little smaller if their own starter was healthy. Tristan Jarry was having a phenomenal bounce-back season and this series would have been a nice chance for redemption after last year’s playoff debacle. But it’s looking unlikely he’ll be available to start, and that means it’s Casey DeSmith for the Penguins — a 1.9-win downgrade. It’s not enough to make the Penguins underdogs in this series, but it does reduce their chances by six percentage points.
DeSmith has the potential to be capable enough, but his inconsistency is worrying and he’s coming off the worst season of his career. Prior to this season, DeSmith had saved just over nine goals above expected in 70 games. This year he’s allowed 2.4 in 25 games, which is … well below Shesterkin. No one’s asking him to outduel the likely Vezina trophy winner, but he’ll need to do a lot of work to bridge the gap enough for the skaters to do the rest.
A lot will hinge on the defense’s ability to make life easier for DeSmith, something that has proven a challenge of late.
The Penguins have been reeling defensively and, though it’s a full team slide, a fair bit of blame can be placed on their top dog, Kris Letang. Since March, he’s the only Penguin defender to be outchanced and his 2.76 expected goals against per 60 is worst among the team’s defensemen. Letang was also the team’s worst by this metric prior to the late-season slide, but 2.44 expected goals against is a bit more manageable than his current swoon.
Letang still brings a lot of value offensively, scoring 68 points in 78 games this season. Plus, he remains a top-tier puck-mover. For a high-octane offensive team, that’s enough to be considered elite. Still, there are warts in his game that aren’t as apparent when watching the best defenseman on the other side.
Adam Fox is projected to bring 3.4 wins in this matchup, which is the best value among all defenders in this series. With Fox and Ryan Lindgren, the Rangers overmatch the Penguins’ top pair. Fox and Lindgren have been together for much of the last three seasons now, and while they haven’t hit some of the heights of last year at five-on-five, the Rangers are just above break-even with the duo that’s tasked with facing top competition on the ice. Relative to teammates, the duo grade out very strongly.
Fox is the game-changer on the Rangers’ blue line. He’s calm under pressure and strong in his own zone with effective positioning and stick work, both at even strength and on the penalty kill. The highlight of his game is that he’s one of the best puck movers in the league. While he doesn’t have the heaviest or most frequent shot, it’s his ability to see the ice, create passing lanes and walk the blue line with poise — all thanks to a high hockey IQ. Those skills allow him to stand out as a top power play quarterback, too.
The Rangers have the edge on the top pair, but the Penguins are a bit deeper — which is part of their advantage in this series. Mike Matheson has been a welcome surprise this season, a breakout campaign after years of looking like an overpaid third-pairing option. This year he’s looked like the second top-pairing type Pittsburgh has needed behind Letang, posting a strong 55 percent expected goals rate. That stems from Matheson eliminating some unneeded risk in his game and becoming a more dependable three-zone defender in the process. He’s been great with Chad Ruhwedel, and the Penguins also have a reliable pair in John Marino and Marcus Pettersson. Marino has fallen off a bit from the heights achieved in his rookie season, but on a second pair he’s serviceable.
It’s capable depth that the Rangers don’t really have — not if Patrik Nemeth is expected to see a lot of ice in this series. With that being said, the team’s top four is much more formidable than given credit for and that’s thanks to the resurgence of Jacob Trouba and the emergence of K’Andre Miller — a pair that has played together more than any other this season.
Trouba leans on physical play, whether using his body to separate opponents from the puck or blocking shots. He’s also a frequent shooter from the blue line. But the defenseman to keep an eye on in this series is Miller, who has been one of the stronger players in New York over the last few months. In the season’s second half, his average Game Score is 0.76, a big step up from the minus-0.13 he had prior. His current overall rating doesn’t quite reflect the massive stride his game has taken.
Miller was thrown into challenging top-four minutes in his first NHL experience last year. While the skill he has was clear, his game was raw. This year, he’s putting it together more consistently, using his size, straight-line speed and lengthy reach. He has also worked on his foot speed in tight, which bit him last year. There’s a confidence to his game that’s pushing him to jump into the offense more, as well.
Up front, the Rangers have elite talent on both of their top lines, which helps spread the wealth. Chris Kreider exceeded all expectations with a 52-goal season, surpassing his previous high by 24. His net-front presence on the power play and hand-eye coordination with redirections helped fuel that goal scoring. Most of his shots and goals are clustered in the net-front area, but he’s not a completely one-dimensional scorer. He can also use his speed and strength to drive up the ice.
With Kreider becoming the primary goal scorer on the Rangers, his mainstay center Mika Zibanejad has become more of a dual threat this year — whether it’s with his passing or his volume shooting, setting up deflections for his winger. After a slower start to the season, a shift back to the left circle helped him get back in the goal column. His one-timer should be a threat throughout the playoffs. Zibanejad is projected to bring 3.2 wins this postseason, which leads the Rangers’ top line. Part of Zibanejad’s value is in his ability to influence shot rates at five-on-five, a big step up from the two seasons prior. The Rangers were 0.19 expected goals per 60 better with Zibanejad on the ice this season compared to minus-0.35 last year.
The second line is an advantage for the Rangers, thanks to their most valuable skater, Artemi Panarin, who is projected to be worth 3.6 wins. Between Kreider-Zibanejad and Panarin-Strome, the team can count on two dynamic duos up front.
Even when Panarin wasn’t at his best this season, showing some red flags in his own zone, he continued to be a timely scorer. Just before the deadline, his game started trending in the right direction below the surface, an important factor in the Rangers beginning to look like a real contender. A key change was the addition of Andrew Copp to the second line alongside Panarin and Ryan Strome, an upgrade over the revolving door of bottom-six options that previously played there. Since then, Panarin seems to have a jump in his step, looking again like the evasive playmaker who is elite in transition.
The only concern here is his injury status. Copp’s too. Both were rested to the end the regular season and will return for Game 1. It’s not unusual for players to be less than 100 percent this time of year, but if injuries become a lingering problem for either, especially Panarin, the Rangers could find themselves in trouble.
As strong as the Rangers’ top quartet is, the Penguins are stronger — especially considering a bulk of the damage they do is at even strength.
In this house, we never doubt Sidney Crosby, who continues to be one of the best players in the world as he ages gracefully into his 30s. In 69 games, Crosby had 84 points, a 100-point pace and an absurd mark for a 34-year-old. He remains an elite play-driver with a 55-percent expected goals rate and an even better actual goals rate.
It helps being flanked by two strong wingers in Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, both of whom also scored at or above a point-per-game pace this season. Guentzel has really come into his own as one of the league’s premier sharp-shooters, scoring 40 goals in 75 games. Playing with Crosby helps, but not just anyone can step in and pot 40. He has a long history of influencing play at five-on-five and, for much of the year, had strong numbers in that regard.
If there’s a concern on the top line it might be with Bryan Rust who started the season red hot, but cooled off considerably down the stretch. Scoring 58 points in 60 games is still incredible for Rust, but he ended the season dropping nine straight doughnuts on the score sheet. He needs to be better in this series. Despite playing frequently with Crosby and Guentzel, Rust somehow managed a 49.9 percent expected goals rate — the second worst mark on the team.
Regardless, the Penguins have the top-line edge, so much so that it may be worth dropping Rust down to play with Evgeni Malkin in order to help with the Panarin matchup. He may be better suited playing secondary matchups and Malkin clearly needs some help on his wings. Malkin has been excellent this year at driving chances with a 56 percent expected goals rate, but converting that to results has been another story at 44 percent. That’s close to a team low. Seeing that revert at just the right time in the playoffs would be huge for the Penguins, but even with the lack of five-on-five success, Malkin still managed to score at a point-per-game pace this season, a tidy bounce-back from last year.
Star power isn’t enough, though. Augmenting the top talent was critical to the Rangers’ turnaround down the stretch.
Copp’s been the most welcome addition, naturally, because he’s helped Panarin reach the level expected of him, and can be deployed in all situations. Instead of Barclay Goodrow or Dryden Hunt rounding out that second line, there’s a more complementary level of skill on the right. That he can play center or wing if needed helps too, especially if any of these combinations prove stale against the Penguins. He’s been red hot as a Ranger, scoring 18 points in 16 games.
The Rangers’ moves at the deadline didn’t end there as they filled out some necessary holes to bolster their depth. The addition of Tyler Motte added a speedy and disruptive winger to their bottom six, but unfortunately he’s out long-term with injury. Frank Vatrano has really exceeded expectations so far, serving as another source of scoring on that top line with Kreider and Zibanejad.
The Penguins made their own deadline splash by acquiring Rickard Rakell and he’s been worth the price so far. Rakell has 13 points in 19 games as a Penguin with limited power play time while posting a strong 57 percent expected goals rate. That’s especially impressive given how the rest of the team has trended.
The Rangers’ third line is going to be their least experienced if they go with the combination of Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko. But if that lack of experience is a concern, it won’t be entirely surprising to see Goodrow end up in the mix instead. Lafrenière finished the season better than he started it, and a confident winger could help provide secondary scoring. But as a whole, this combination projects lower than Pittsburgh’s because they’ve only shown so much at this level.
The fourth line doesn’t change that trend for the Rangers, with the Penguins’ bottom six exceeding in collective value. For now, that’s with Hunt on the first line. Had the Rangers instead matched up against the Capitals, Ryan Reaves (minus-0.7 wins) would have been a lock in the lineup — but the physical winger could start the series in the press box after playing in only half of the season series against Pittsburgh. If New York falters early, it won’t be surprising to see the coaches look for him to bring his heavy-hockey element.
Pittsburgh’s bottom six is where the team is really underrated as the Penguins don’t have any liabilities there. All six are top-nine caliber players who can move the needle in various ways. Consistency is an issue (see, first-half Evan Rodrigues vs. second-half Evan Rodrigues), but at their best the Penguins have the makings of a reliable scoring-depth line anchored by Jeff Carter, and a very capable shutdown line led by Teddy Blueger. To have him flanked by Rodrigues and Danton Heinen as the fourth line is a luxury. That sort of depth can tip the scales in this series and overwhelm New York’s lackluster bottom six.
The Bottom Line
If Shesterkin plays the way everyone knows he can, this will be a very difficult series to win for the Penguins — especially with their own goaltending issues. Pittsburgh needs to overwhelm New York on the shot clock to nullify that advantage, something the team is more than capable of doing, but may prove difficult considering the way the Rangers have played down the stretch.
The Rangers are coming into the playoffs hot, have the star power necessary to win and the best goalie in the world. They’ve solved many of their depth problems and have the heaviness to impose their will on a smaller team.
But bet against Crosby at your own peril. Three straight first-round exits just doesn’t feel right for the future Hall of Famer and it feels like he still has some magic left in him for a run this season — one that could be Pittsburgh’s last.
This is one of the closest series of the first round and there’s plenty of reason to think either team could take it. It should be one of the most entertaining to watch.
Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards and NHL.
(Top photo of Sidney Crosby and Igor Shesterkin: Emilee Chinn / Getty Images)