Things at the top of the Metro Division are finally settled with Carolina clinching the division title at MSG on Tuesday night. The Rangers have known for a week already that they’ll have home ice in round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs but what has yet to be determined is who they’ll face.
Fans have wanted to see the Rangers clinch the division and play one of the two wild card seeds. I was never in that camp. I always wanted the Rangers to finish second in the Metro and play the three seed.
My ideal first round opponent for the Blueshirts is the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Many might think that’s crazy with the offensive firepower the Penguins have at their disposal and with who their head coach is. However, when everything is considered the Rangers are a matchup nightmare for the Pens.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang are still dynamic players and difference makers but once you’re past them the Penguins roster drops off dramatically. Jeff Carter is still a good player but he’s not the difference maker he was when he was helping the Kings win two Stanley Cups. As great of a player that Malkin is, this season and historically, he has shown to lose his cool in heated moments. With this roster, getting under his skin has been an easy target. Not to mention the fact that while Tristan Jarry who has largely had a solid season in net, was absolutely abysmal in the postseason last year. Backup Casey DeSmith who has not seen postseason action in his NHL career is currently shouldering the load in goal right due to injury.
Unlike Pittsburgh, thanks to his deadline moves, the Rangers have depth when you get past Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin, and Fox. Especially with Alexis Lafreniere appearing like he’s becoming a driving force on the clubs third line and helping to elevate the game of Filip Chytil, not to mention the return of a 100% healthy Kaapo Kakko, that’s a third line far better than anything the Pens have in their bottom six. Add in the additions of Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano providing quality secondary scoring.
The blueline advantage also tilts heavily towards Broadway with the Rangers having two stout top defensive pairs to be able to lean on. Not to mention the subtle play of Braden Schneider on the third pair even if he’s paired with Patrik Nemeth.
The biggest advantage the Rangers will have in this series and beyond, unless they play Tampa, is in net.
Also a matchup against Pittsburgh is more favorable than going against Washington because the Rangers won’t have to worry about the goon factor of Tom Wilson. Lets just think the Rangers have a 3-1 series lead against Washington and are winning game 5 with a minute left, do you really want to chance Wilson won’t take a run at Panarin, Fox, Zibanejad, or Copp knowing it won’t matter for him? That’s not a chance I’m willing to take. The Capitals also have other players in the lineup who play close to the edge or at times take advantage of the Wilson spotlight behind the play. While the Rangers should still come out on top in the series, a matchup with the Capitals will be a physical battle from start to finish.
While this might “tugging on Superman’s cape” on my part, the Penguins don’t invoke the same fear in me that they did 5 years ago. It has less to do with Crosby and Malkin as it does that the rest of the Penguins team just isn’t as good or deep as years past. It also helps the confidence that the new look Rangers have owned the Penguins since the trade deadline going 3-0 and have looked convincing doing it. The Rangers are also one blown call away from having a season sweep of Pittsburgh 4-0.
Hopefully for the Blueshirts sake the standings hold true and the Rangers face the Pens in round one where the Rangers should be able to advance in 5 games.