Alain Vigneault stood in front of the larger-than-usual amount assembled media members Monday afternoon to give his “State Of The Rangers Union” address.
During the nine minute and forty two second question and answer session, Vigneault was asked for his analysis of the Rangers first round opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Well, probably since Christmas they’ve been the best team in the league,” Vigneault said. “They’ve been doing it with a real sound defensive structure, real quick transition; obviously (Sidney) Crosby if he’s not the best player in the world, he’s pretty close to it. And his game, after (a slow) start (points) wise, he’s been on a tear. Playing against them the last two (playoff) years since I’ve been here, they’ve been highly competitive and hard fought (series). And expect the exact same thing.
For the third year in a row, the Rangers and Penguins will meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. All time, the Rangers are 2-5 against the Penguins, but have won the last two series. Two years ago, the Rangers came back from 3-1 down to eliminate the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division Final. Last year, it took five games for the Rangers to eliminate Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division Semifinals.
Tanner Glass played in both series for both teams. In 2013-14, he was a member of the Penguins, while 2014-15 was his first year as a Ranger. So he, perhaps more than anyone on either roster—with the possible exception of now-Penguins winger Carl Hagelin—had the ability to break down those series from both viewpoints.
“Two years ago I thought we should have won,” Glass said. “We were killing them (and) stuff happened and they came back and beat us. (Henrik Lundqvist) was amazing in that series, kind of stole it for them. That’s the feeling we had in that locker room. Last year, I think we were just hungry. We played really well early in the games.”
The teams entered the series two years ago on relatively even footing, and the Rangers were the overwhelming favorites last year. That isn’t the case heading into Game 1 Wednesday night at CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins finished the regular season with a 48-26-8 record, good for 104 points. Much of the credit has been assigned to Mike Sullivan, who replaced Mike Johnston as head coach on Dec. 12. Under Sullivan, the Penguins compiled a 33-16-5 record.
“Their pace has picked up. They do a lot of quick ups, long outs, lot of rims, moving the puck up the ice. A real north game. I think that’s suited (Crosby) better because he’s taken off since then. And (Kris) Letang, two guys you have to key on, for sure. But their pace is higher than what it was,” Eric Staal said. “Similar to what this (group’s) is now. It’s going to be a good series. The type of hockey both these teams play is similar. Their neutral zone is a little deeper, more passive I would say, but it’s similar.”
Pittsburgh averaged a NHL high 33.2 shots on goal per game. The Penguins 241 goals and 2.94 goals scored per game ranked third, while their 199 goals allowed and 2.43 goals allowed per game were the sixth fewest in the NHL in those categories.
“They’ve been winning a lot of hockey games. Sully’s got them on the same page and they believe in what they’re doing,” said Marc Staal. Staal played for Sullivan, who was John Tortorella’s assistant coach with during his tenure as coach of the Rangers. “They’re playing very well as a team. We’ll look at them the next couple days and and we’ll prepare as we can for them.”
So, yes, the Penguins pose a significant challenge. One that grew larger when a reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tweeted Tuesday morning Marc-Andre Fleury, Olli Maatta and Beau Bennett practiced with the Penguins. The team’s official Twitter feed subsequently reported Sullivan as having diagnosed Fluery—who sustained a concussion near the end of the regular season—as day to day, and Maatta will be a game time decision.
While the Penguins are potentially having key components return, the Rangers may enter Game 1 down Ryan McDonagh. Vigneault was adamant the captain will not play Wednesday as he recuperates from a broken hand, incurred in the regular season’s final week while blocking a Brandon Dubinsky shot. Dan Girardi practiced Tuesday after skating before and following Monday’s practice.
Henrik Lundqvist left Monday’s practice with a bout of the flu, but Vigneault thought the goaltender would be fine for Game 1.
You can follow NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter at @DenisGorman.