You’ve seen the opinions. You’ve seen the models. It’s a mixed bag as far as media and data views go on Rangers-Penguins.
We asked some real insiders what they think, and … well, see for yourself. Our panel consists of two scouts, both of whom cover the Metro Division, one Eastern Conference coach and two executives, one for an Eastern Conference team and one for a Western Conference team. All five of them have seen plenty of the Rangers and Penguins this season.
And only one of our panel of five thinks the Penguins even have a chance.
“The most important position when it comes to the playoffs is goaltending. With (Tristan) Jarry highly questionable for the series, I think it’ll be an uphill climb for Pittsburgh. Give the clear advantage to the Rangers and their favorite Vezina (Igor) Shesterkin.
“A key to the Rangers’ success is obviously limiting the damage that (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin inflict. The play of K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba will not only dictate the outcome of this series but ultimately how deep of a run the Rangers can make this spring. Trouba’s physicality and Miller’s size and mobility should make life very difficult on those top two lines for Pittsburgh.”
Scout No. 2
“The Rangers will need to limit the high-danger chances. They have the edge with goaltending, but the amount of high-danger chances they let up in the regular season will hurt them in playoffs if they can’t control that. A key for them is the power play and continuing to be good when they get chances. I like the moves they made at the deadline. They added to the overall depth of the team, which you need this time of year.
“For the Penguins, they need to step up, and their star players need to be stars for them to have a chance. I like the center depth. This team will go as Crosby and Malkin do. They have the ability to win a series. Not crazy about their D depth, and I worry they are not physical enough or good enough on the back end, with goaltending being a question mark on top of that.
“When we talked earlier in year, I told you the Rangers weren’t ready. I may be rethinking that. With each series win, they could gain confidence, and they have some good star players. If you asked me in January who would win in the East, maybe three teams I would have said have legit shot, now with all eight it is going to be an absolute battle just to get out of the East.”
“I can’t even believe you’re asking me. Rangers in five.
“The goalie (Shesterkin) is too good. Jarry broke his foot. Even if they were healthy, the other guy’s going to win the Vezina. If you look at their defense, Pitt’s D is pretty good, but that’s the biggest improvement I’ve seen with the Rangers. (Ryan) Lindgren is good, Miller is good, Trouba — they’re solid around the goaltender and they can give you a little offense. The Rangers’ power play is as good as it gets with (Adam) Fox running it. (Mika) Zibanejad, (Ryan) Strome, (Artemi) Panarin can all shoot from their spots. They have (Chris) Kreider scoring 50 from in tight. They have four, five set plays they can run on you with that power play. The Penguins have to stay out of the box.
“The biggest thing for me with the Rangers is at the start of the year to where they are now, they check hard. Backpressure, tracking, they weren’t like that at the beginning of the year, but they’re dialed in. Pitt has a couple lines, but (Rangers GM Chris) Drury made some great pickups. (Frank) Vatrano, (Andrew) Copp, (Tyler) Motte, if he can come back — that’s real. They’re as deep as anybody. I think they’re going to the conference finals. I’d be absolutely stunned if the Pens beat them.
“Pitt’s best hope is low-scoring games. They’re going to have to be in a tight game. The Rangers are like Florida and Tampa. They can explode with some of the guys they have. The goaltender for the Rangers can frustrate you to the point where you start to cheat, have to change the tactical part of the game to manufacture offense. When that happens, that’s normally not a good thing.
“I think Pitt’s a good team, but they’re an older team and this is their last hurrah with (Bryan) Rust, Malkin. Pitt’s PP can be good. When you look at the special teams and the goaltender, you’ve got to give the Rangers the edge. I don’t see any way Pittsburgh can win this series.
“The Rangers are just playing a lot harder now. Their top guys have the mentality of fourth-liners. They understand clock management, who they’re playing against. They’ve done a good job of making opponents play a 200-foot game. It’s too much for Pitt to handle. Kreider, Zibanejad, those guys are playing well. Strome’s playing hard. Their skill guys are not playing pond hockey; they’re fucking working. They get it. I don’t think Malkin and Crosby are going to have the time and space they need to succeed.”
The Eastern Conference exec
“Unfortunately, this series isn’t the same series it would’ve been prior to Jarry’s injury. As good as Mike Sullivan is — and he is one of the top two, three coaches in the game — I don’t see how he’ll be able to pull this off with this kind of handicap going in. I had my doubts on Jarry to begin with, but without him, I don’t see how the Penguins can win more than a game.
“The Rangers, on the other hand, have the best guy in the league right now, so that with that kind of advantage, I think it will be enough for them to win this series on its own. While Sid is still one of the best players in the world and is playing at such a high level, the Rangers’ top two lines can match the Penguins’ top two. New York’s defense is much better than Pittsburgh’s. They have guys back there that can make the game miserable — in Trouba, Lindgren and (Braden) Schneider. That’s what you need this time of year. Depth at forward could be a factor for the Rangers after they move on, but it won’t be this round.”
The Western Conference exec
“The Rangers start with the advantage, with how well they’ve played and having the best goalie in the league. They really helped themselves at the deadline. Their high-end players have all had good years, (and) those moves they made at the deadline really solidified that top forward group.
“Pittsburgh’s got elite players. Crosby, Malkin, (Kris) Letang, (Jake) Guentzel, Rust, (Jeff) Carter. Their best players need to score. They need to get high-end goaltending. Looks like it’s (Casey) DeSmith and he’s going to have to give them high-end goaltending. They have to stay out of the box too because the Rangers power play is such a threat.
“Crosby and the Pitt leadership are going to have to fight against the tendency to open it up if Shesterkin frustrates them. The experience they have, you come into New York and you want to get your split. You also want to play your game. Maybe later in the series and Shesterkin’s playing like he did in the season, they’ll get a little loose, but you have to start off playing your game. Anything other than that is trouble.
“For Pitt, it’s three guys that could be key for me: (Evan) Rodrigues, (Danton) Heinen and (Kasperi) Kapanen. They need the secondary scoring. You know what you get from the high-end guys. Especially early, it’s important to get that going early and make the Rangers guess at who to put their top guys on.
“The focus will be on the Rangers D to hold serve. Miller. Schneider. It’s going to be important they play at the same level in the playoffs they did in the regular season.
“I’m not going to give you a prediction, but I figure everyone else you talked to said Rangers. I’m good with that.”
(Top photo of Kasperi Kapanen shooting on Igor Shesterkin: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)