The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins will find out how much experience matters when they meet in an Eastern Conference first-round series.
Coming off a dynamic regular season that significantly exceeded expectations, the Rangers play their first home playoff game in nearly five years Tuesday night when the veteran Penguins visit for Game 1.
Since 2017, New York’s only postseason appearance was a three-game sweep by the Carolina Hurricanes in August 2020 in the Toronto bubble when the league added a qualifying round following a four-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rangers followed that brief appearance by fading down the stretch in the 56-game 2020-21 season and then replaced coach David Quinn with Gerard Gallant, who led the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the 2018 Stanley Cup final in their inaugural season.
Under Gallant this season, the Rangers won 52 games and finished with 110 points, their highest totals since 2014-15.
They did so by getting standout individual performances from Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and goalie Igor Shesterkin, a quartet with a combined 142 postseason games.
Kreider finished with a career-high 52 goals and led the NHL with 26 power-play tallies. Zibanejad finished with a career-best 81 points, Panarin tied for 11th in the league with a career-best 96 points and Shesterkin led the league in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.935).
“I don’t think experience is all that it’s chalked up to be,” said New York’s Andrew Copp, who appeared in 34 playoff games for the Winnipeg Jets. “They’re just three really good players and their team is very good. Obviously, I think our team is very good, too. I think we’re ready for this challenge. It’s definitely going to be a great series and we’re looking forward to it.”
The Pittsburgh trio Copp is referring to is Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. They have combined for 486 postseason games to help the Penguins reach the postseason 16 straight times.
The Penguins ended the regular-season with 11 losses in their final 18 games (7-9-2) and finished seven points behind the Rangers, whom they are facing in the postseason for the first time since beating them in five games during the 2016 first round.
Crosby finished with 84 points while injuries limited Malkin to 41 games and Letang notched a career-best 68 points.
“We certainly feel like it,” Letang said of being an underdog. “(It’s) a team I’ve been around for a long time. And when I have a guy like Sid (Crosby), (Evgeni) Malkin, Jeff Carter, (Jake) Guentzel, that core group, you have confidence in what you can bring. If we’re underdogs, fine. That’s all right.”
The Penguins won their third Stanley Cup of the Crosby-Malkin era in 2017 but have not won a postseason series since beating the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2018 first round. In 2019, they endured a first-round sweep to the New York Islanders, lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2020 qualifying round and last season fell in six games to the Islanders.
Pittsburgh will be without goalie Tristan Jarry for at least the first two games due to a foot injury. The Penguins are hoping Casey DeSmith can continue to perform effectively after he posted a .933 save percentage in his final seven games.
–Field Level Media
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