Yes, the New York Rangers are acutely aware that they enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
They are also aware that the Presidents' Trophy and predictions from oddsmakers are not guaranteers of anything other than home ice throughout the tournament.
"I think we're ready to start in here," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said after practice Wednesday.
Game No. 1 of the first round series against the Penguins is set for Thursday (7 p.m., MSG) at the Garden, and many in the hockey world are expecting the Rangers to advance in short order. Pittsburgh enters the series having lost 11-of-their-last 15 games, and due to salary cap mismanagement and injuries the Penguins were limited to dressing five defensemen in seven games at the end of the season.
As part of the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring, they overcame a 1-3 series deficit to the Penguins en route to eliminating their Metropolitan Division rival in Game 7 at CONSOL Energy Center.
The loss to the Rangers caused a seismic reaction within the Penguins organization as then-General Manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma were fired, replaced by Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston, respectively.
The personnel changes did not bring about the desired results, as Pittsburgh qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season with a 43-27-12 record. Despite the presence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins' 2.65 goals per game ranked 19th in the NHL.
Moreover, the Penguins enter the playoffs decidedly shorthanded on defense. Wednesday, it was announced that Christian Ehrhoff will not play Thursday night due to a euphemistic upper-body injury. Ehrhoff's injury significantly weakens a back six that already does not have Kris Letang and Olli Maatta.
Letang has a concussion and Rutherford told Pittsburgh reporters last week that it was "unlikely" the defenseman would return this season. Maatta only played in 20 games during the 2014-15 season before having shoulder surgery in January.
While it would seem reasonable to suggest the up-tempo Rangers could take advantage of a weakened back end, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault chose to praise the Penguins' defense corps.
"I consider their defense to be experienced," Vigneault said. "I consider their defense, without Letang, [not to have] the same offensive rush force, but I do think the other guys all have experience. I look at [Paul] Martin and I consider him one of the best defensemen in the league; underrated, plays big minutes.
"All those guys, [played] a lot of minutes. They played five defense, I think, over the last five or seven games."
Unlike the Penguins, the Rangers enter the playoffs relatively healthy, outside of defenseman Kevin Klein, who is rehabilitating from a broken arm. Rick Nash did not participate in Wednesday's practice as he was ill, but is expected to play, according to Vigneault.
"He's on a day-to-day basis. I'm expecting, one of these next days, to have somebody knock on my door and say, 'He's good,'" Vigneault said of Klein.
Of Nash, the coach joked, "Last week I said he was injured and [you] said I was resting him. Today, I say he's sick and you might say he's injured."