The Rangers’ first-round opponent is a familiar foe: Pittsburgh.
When the Islanders lost to the Flyers, 5-2, on Sunday night, it clinched third place in the Metropolitan Division for the Rangers, who will meet Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the playoffs for the third straight season and in the first round for the second straight season.
Last season the Rangers won in five games. The year before, the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to knock out the Penguins in seven games.
Led by former Rangers assistant coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins have been red-hot. Since Dec. 12, when he took over behind the bench, the Penguins are 33-16-5. Crosby, who had 19 points in the first 28 games, is 36-49-85. With a more offensive approach under Sullivan, John Tortorella’s assistant in New York, the Penguins have 240 goals, third-best in the NHL, and have won 13 of the last 15 games.
Pittsburgh, 2-1-1 against the Rangers this season, is missing two key components. There is no timetable for goalie Marc- Andre Fleury’s return from concussion symptoms; he last played March 31. Evgeni Malkin, with 58 points in 57 games, has missed nearly a month with an upper-body injury.
Center Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and former Ranger Carl Hagelin have been impressive. Kessel, with a deadly accurate shot, and Hagelin, acquired by general manager Jim Rutherford from the Ducks on Jan. 16, have great speed, and with Bonino — whose forte is retrieving pucks — they have been dangerous. Along with Crosby’s linemates, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz, the Penguins have a formidable top six.
On defense, Kris Letang is having a Norris Trophy-worthy season with 16 goals and 67 points.
If Fleury cannot return, goaltending duties will be in the hands of 6-4 Matt Murray, 21, a terrific prospect who has played only 13 NHL games.
Rangers vs. Penguins
Game 1: Wednesday, at Pittsburgh, USA, 8 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, at Pittsburgh, Ch. 4, 3 p.m.
Game 3: April 19, at Rangers, USA, 7 p.m.
Game 4: April 21, at Rangers, TBD
*Game 5: April 23, at Pittsburgh, TBD
*Game 6: April 25, at Rangers, TBD
*Game 7: April 27, at Pittsburgh, TBD