PITTSBURGH — Technically, it was the third year in a row the Rangers and Penguins had met in the playoffs.
In reality, the Penguins of 2016 bear little resemblance to the ones who blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers two years ago and lost to them in five games last year.
True, some Penguins stars have been constants, including the biggest star of all, Sidney Crosby. But consider this: Only seven players in the lineup for Pittsburgh’s loss in Game 5 to the Rangers last year were in the lineup for the Penguins’ series-clinching 6-3 victory in Game 5 Saturday.
Not one of the five goal-scorers for the home team Saturday played in the postseason for the Penguins last year. One of them played for the Rangers: Carl Hagelin.
“There’s been a lot,” Crosby said of the turmoil and turnover, which included a coaching change from Mike Johnston to former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan in December and a subsequent winning roll that has made the Penguins the NHL’s hottest team since the start of the year.
“It’s been a lot, but I think that with that, you have to build during the year, and we went through a lot of adversity, with a tough start, injuries throughout the whole year, and I think we learned a lot about this whole group.”
Crosby said he thought the team came of age in March, setting up what it hopes will be a long playoff run after a series of recent spring disappointments.
“We knew the position we were in; we had to make up some ground,” he said. “I thought we really found our game that month.”
The Penguins eventually blew past both the Rangers and Islanders in the Metropolitan Division and had fans of both teams rooting for wild-card berths rather than third place and a date with the Penguins.
The Islanders ended up with the better of that deal and a matchup with the Atlantic Division champion Panthers.
Assuming the Capitals, who are up 3-2, get past the Flyers, the league, its TV partners and its fans will get a dream matchup for the second round.
The Capitals were the best team in the league through the entire regular season, but the Penguins look like the most dangerous team now. They shredded the Rangers for 11 goals in the past two games and twice chased Henrik Lund qvist to the bench.
“I think that it doesn’t get any easier, that’s for sure,” Crosby said. “This series was a good step.”