If you're into splitting hairs, the two-three matchup in the Metropolitan Division offers a fairly intriguing opportunity. The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins are far different teams at far different stages of their hockey life cycles, but choosing between them poses a challenge.
The No. 2-seed New York Rangers have risen faster than most would have expected — or at least as was first intended. The switches from Jeff Gorton to Chris Drury and David Quinn to Gerard Gallant have accelerated to process after a conscious start to a re-tooling out of the Henrik Lundqvist era. The Artemi Panarin and Adam Fox signings, plus some fortune in the draft lottery, made the opportunity to strike possible, but it was a measure of restlessness which really pushed the franchise forward.
James Dolan didn't want to wait, and the ownership meddling has, in some ways, been responsible for the bounding steps taken forward. This team went from 16th to seventh in one season in the overall standings, finishing with 110 points in 2021-22. New York is tougher, more polished and more talented after setting out to be tougher, more polished and maybe slightly less talented (Pavel Buchnevich, hello) in aggressively pursuing upgrades leading up and throughout the season.
The biggest game-changer, however, has been Igor Shesterkin, who is cemented as one of the top netminders in the NHL after only 100 starts in his career. He's the runaway winner of the Vezina Trophy, and mostly responsible for allowing the Rangers to cut corners from a team-building perspective. Gallant has been able to demonstrably improve the performance of the team, but what allowed a team that sags in metrics like shot share and expected goals to have so much success in the face of it is the presence of a dominant netminder. Shesterkin helped the Rangers achieve the league's top total save percentage this season with an award-worthy 53 appearances.
How wonderful to transition from the Lundqvist era to the Shesterkin one.
The Penguins, meanwhile, are clinging to a past era — and more specifically the little that's left of it. Aside from Sidney Crosby, every remaining player who's held considerable meaning to the franchise through its glory seasons is set to become an unrestricted free agent. This is likely the final postseason run with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust. The organization made the wise decision to invest in that core despite the need to restock the draft and prospect capital cupboards, because these players, in addition to the captain, have brought so much to it.
But the grappling with time isn't exclusively tied to the expiring term of several contracts. Crosby, Malkin, and Letang specifically have been competing at a high level for parts of three decades. While still capable around another curated cast of supporting talent in the regular season, it's worth pondering what they might have left as the competition ramps up. Pittsburgh has lost its last four postseason series and hasn't claimed a victory in a seven-game clash since 2018. This is an aging team looking to reverse a trend for one last ride.
But starker than the age and trajectory divide is the situation in goal. The counterpart to the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner for New York will be a combination of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, with the latter expected to start as Jarry deals with an injury. DeSmith has been highly serviceable in his career, but it would be a tall ask of him to level the playing field from a goaltending perspective. Jarry, meanwhile, had a woeful series last summer versus the New York Islanders, taking much of the blame for the loss.
What have you done for me lately?
New York has been markedly consistent this season behind the highest-performing netminding in the league. It has, since the trade deadline, performed at essentially the same level, having nailed down the No. 2 seed, and briefly threatened for the division title, with a 12-6-1 stretch since teams finalized their rosters. Even with Shesterkin losing a few percentage points on that dazzling save percentage of his, the Rangers specialized in the same thing, allowing the fewest goals league-wide down the stretch of the season.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, faded a bit. The Penguins nearly coughed up the No. 3 seed and were almost forced to traverse into the powerhouse Atlantic Division, but did survive the late-season probabilities with the Washington Capitals also stubbing their toes. The Penguins won just eight of their last 19 games, but didn't really struggle in any one area — aside from head-to-head matchups with the Rangers.
In three meetings down the stretch, New York captured six points and out-scored the Penguins on aggregate 11-3.
The Rangers will win if...
The difference in net is as stark as it seems. If one player possesses more power in a single series league-wide than any other, it's likely Shesterkin in the Rangers goal.
The Penguins will win if...
Crosby wills this thing. This core group has both pushed through and failed to push through some difficult spots in recent postseasons. When it works it's on the back of Crosby, who quietly had a sensational season.
It's become repetitive, but Shesterkin means so much to the outcome of this series. It's been that way for the Rangers throughout the regular season, and he poses to present the same challenge which has upended the Penguins previously.
The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)
Does Mike Sullivan apply? Pittsburgh's coach has done a fabulous job this season, navigating superstar absences and inconsistent performances across the board. He has to find a way to exploit the advantages Pittsburgh can create through the run of play.
If he doesn't count, I'll stick with the criminally underrated Jake Guentzel, who will be a nightmare for Jacob Trouba at times in the series.
New York in six.
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