Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi pulls the puck out of the net after Chris Kreider's second period goal in Game 3 Monday. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The Penguins haven't laid down and waived a white flag in their first-round series against the New York Rangers, but even if the injury-ravaged Pens were at full strength, they'd be hard-pressed to beat the mighty Blueshirts. This Pittsburgh team needs balance and depth – and to get that, they'll need changes.
In my pre-playoff predictions, I picked the President's Trophy-winning New York Rangers to have the easiest first-round series of any NHL post-season team this year and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in just five games. And although I have to give the Pens credit for not weakly waving a white flag through the first three games of the opening round, after their Game 3 2-1 loss to the Blueshirts, I don't expect we'll see them upset the league's best regular-season squad. Part of it is simply because the injury-ravaged Penguins in their current condition just don't have the horses to run with the skilled and versatile Rangers, but even at full strength – even with the sidelined Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff, Olli Maatta and Pascal Dupuis in the lineup – they don't possess the depth and balance their opponents do.
As noted above, the Pens have shown enough pride and determination thus far to keep each game close (both Blueshirts wins have come via 2-1 scores, and Pittsburgh's Game 2 victory was a gutsy road affair). In Game 3, before their home fans for the first time in the post-season, they dug themselves a 2-0 hole with Rangers goals in each of the first two periods before they cut the lead in half with 6:48 left to play in the third and made a late push, outshooting the Blueshirts 13-7 in the final frame. Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist had to be at his best in turning aside 23 of 24 shots.
But that's been the problem for the Pens more often than not: they can jab back, but not in a sustained manner. There's no push from everyone at the same time. Sidney Crosby had the first assist on Patric Hornqvist's goal Monday and finished with two shots on the night, but Evgeni Malkin didn't register a shot or a point. Marc-Andre Fleury gave them another strong game between the pipes, but he received insufficient offensive support. Veteran Chris Kunitz took a pair of minor penalties (two of five Pittsburgh was assessed in Game 3) and now has eight PIMs in the series. The Penguins could probably beat the Rangers if only one of the aforementioned problems were before them, but when they're all before them at once, there's next to no chance they can defeat them in three of the next four games.
The Rangers are in a much better predicament. Nobody in New York is focusing on star Martin St-Louis being held off the scoresheet in each of the first three games because the Rangers are receiving contributions from younger members such as Chris Kreider (whose first of the post-season was the game-winner) and Carl Hagelin. In Game 1, their goals didn't come from high-paid veterans Rick Nash or Keith Yandle, but from Ryan McDonagh and Derick Brassard. And their defense was about as solid as you're going to see from them; as the Pens made their late-game surge, the Rangers consistently had four defenders boxing out around Lundqvist. This is not to say they can't be beaten, because they can. Pittsburgh dominated them in the faceoff circle (38 to 28) and had them on their heels at times. A deeper group like the Montreal Canadiens or Tampa Bay Lightning would give them a more prolonged counter-attack than the Pens seem capable of giving in their present state.
There's always the possibility Crosby or Malkin could put Pittsburgh on their shoulders and shock the Rangers in the final games that remain, but if we're talking about probability, we have to say it's more probable the results will be similar to what we've seen thus far. The Penguins aren't a bad hockey team. They can be a very good hockey team. But from the second half of the regular season on, they haven't looked like a truly elite team and dominated opponents on a consistent basis.
The Rangers have, and that's why they're on track to dispose of the Pens in relatively short order and take on either the Islanders or Capitals in the second round.