(SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Rangers already claimed the Presidents' Trophy and they hope to get their Stanley Cup quest off to a strong start on Thursday against the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins.
After leading the NHL with 113 points, the Rangers shoot for an early lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals when they host Pittsburgh in Game 1 from Madison Square Garden.
New York lost in five games to the Los Angeles Kings in last season's Stanley Cup Finals, but in 2014-15 the Rangers not only claimed the Metropolitan Division title but also secured home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs by posting the best record in the regular season. The Rangers earned the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy since 1993-94, which also marked the last time the Blueshirts won a Cup.
The fact that the Kings didn't make the playoffs this season also sets up the defending Eastern Conference champs as one of the favorites to win it all this spring.
After getting his club to the final round in his debut season with the Rangers, head coach Alain Vigneault heads into these playoffs as the favorite in the East. His club is perhaps the most balanced team in the entire NHL, as it ranked third in both goals scored (3.02 goals per game) and goals allowed (2.28 GPG) during the regular season.
Back for a fifth straight playoff appearance, the Rangers are still anchored by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who missed 25 games late in the season due to a vascular injury but returned on March 28 and made seven starts before the end of the regular season. The 33-year-old Swede has been New York's best player for the past decade and has compiled a strong playoff resume over the years, registering a .922 save percentage and 2.24 GAA over 92 career postseason contests.
The Rangers boast a solid defense in front of Lundqvist, but New York enters the first round with one of its key blueliners on the shelf as Kevin Klein will miss at least Game 1 while recovering from a fractured left arm. Klein was second on the New York blue line with 26 points this season.
The good news for New York is it has plenty of depth on the back end. Ryan McDonagh is at the top of the rotation and led the defense with 33 points on eight goals and 25 assists. McDonagh's skating partner Dan Girardi was second to McDonagh in average ice time. Girardi had four goals and 16 assists, tying him with Marc Staal (5G, 15A) and Dan Boyle (9G, 11A) for third on the blue line in points.
In-season acquisition Keith Yandle, who came over from Arizona at the trade deadline, is a game-changing offensive weapon. He excels at joining the rush and posted 11 points (2G, 9A) in a 21-game stint with his new team.
On offense, all eyes will be on power forward Rick Nash, who turned in an excellent regular season but needs to prove himself all over again in the playoffs.
Nash led the Rangers with a career-high 42 goals and also paced the team with 69 points, matching another personal best. However, the winger struggled mightily in the 2014 postseason, posting just 10 points (3G, 7A) in 25 games and he didn't score his first goal until Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Montreal.
Nash missed the final two tests of the regular season due to an undisclosed injury and he sat out practice Wednesday because of an illness. However, he will play in Game 1.
"He'll be fine tomorrow," Vigneault said of Nash.
Martin St. Louis had a different problem than Nash, as he went through a down year in 2014-15 after carrying the Rangers' offense for a chunk of last spring's playoff run. St. Louis posted eight goals and seven assists during the 2014 postseason, but the 39-year-old winger only posted 52 points (21G, 31A) in 74 games during the regular season. It marked his lowest output since a 35-point campaign with Tampa Bay in 2001-02.
New York had 10 players reach double digits in goals this season, including eight with 15 or more tallies. Chris Kreider tied St. Louis for second on the club with 21 goals, while first-line centerman Derick Brassard was next with 19 markers.
Rookie Kevin Hayes and speedster Carl Hagelin each potted 17 goals, while Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello scored 16 and 15 times, respectively.
The Penguins, meanwhile, enter this series after limping into the playoffs following an awful late-season stretch.
After losing in seven games to the Rangers during last season's conference semifinals, and blowing a 3-1 series' lead in the process, the Pens fired head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero. For most of 2014-15, the moves seemed to be working out fine, but then came the swoon down the stretch.
Pittsburgh lost five straight before beating the Buffalo Sabres on the final day of the regular season to secure the final wild card spot in the East. The Pens went 4-9-2 over their final 15 games to nearly miss the postseason for the first time since 2006, when captain Sidney Crosby was a rookie.
Bylsma's replacement, Mike Johnston, was criticized plenty during his first season behind the Pittsburgh bench, but he faces the same problem as his predecessor -- a top-heavy lineup that offers little in the way of difference- makers after Crosby and fellow star centerman Evgeni Malkin.
Crosby finished third in the NHL with 84 points (28G, 56A) and Malkin was in the scoring race for a large part of the season before he was slowed by injury. Malkin would up with 70 points (28G, 42A) in 69 games.
Patric Hornqvist, acquired in the offseason from Nashville, added 25 goals and 26 assists while mostly playing wing on Crosby's line. Third-line centerman Brandon Sutter also reached 20 goals, recording 33 points (21G, 12A) over 80 games. Chris Kunitz posted 17 goals and 23 helpers while playing left wing next to Malkin.
However, from an overall standpoint the Pens offense was less than impressive in 2014-15, averaging just 2.65 goals per game to rank 19th in the league. That marked a big drop-off from 2013-14 when Pittsburgh had the fifth-best offense by averaging 2.95 goals per tilt.
Meanwhile, the club's defensive numbers were the same as the Pens allowed 2.49 goals per game in each of the last two regular seasons.
Pittsburgh will have to get by without top defenseman Kris Letang, who suffered a concussion on March 28 and is not likely to be available in the postseason no matter how far the Penguins get. It's a huge loss for the Pens, as Letang led the club in average ice time with 25 minutes, 29 seconds per game. He also was by far the team's best offensive weapon from the back end with 54 points on 11 goals and 43 assists and Pittsburgh doesn't have another guy to replace what Letang brings to the power play.
Paul Martin, who was second on Pittsburgh's blue line with 20 points, will assume the No. 1 defensive role with Letang sidelined indefinitely. Martin will likely be paired with Ben Lovejoy, who had one goal, two assists and a minus-seven rating in 20 games following a trade with Anaheim on March 2.
With Letang already sidelined, the Pens were hoping Christian Ehrhoff could go in Game 1 and skate alongside Ian Cole on the second pairing. Ehrhoff missed the last nine regular-season games with an upper-body injury and will sit out the opener of this set with hopes of getting back into the lineup for Saturday's Game 2 at MSG.
"Unfortunately not ready to go for Game 1, but it's a day-to-day thing and hopefully it keeps progressing in the right direction and I can be with the guys in Game 2," said Ehrhoff.
Derrick Pouliot also is expected to miss Game 1 with an upper-body injury, leaving Rob Scuderi, Taylor Chorney, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington to log minutes on the blue line.
Marc-Andre Fleury is back for another postseason between the pipes. The Pens veteran netminder has earned the reputation as an erratic playoff goaltender, but he is coming off another strong regular season.
Fleury went 34-20-9 with a 2.32 GAA and .920 save percentage in 64 games this season and led the NHL with a club-record 10 shutouts.
The 30-year-old Fleury went through consecutive rough playoff runs in 2012 and '13 but he bounced back last spring with a 2.40 GAA and .915 save percentage in 13 games. Pittsburgh may need him to be even better than that if they are going to knock off the reigning East champions in Round 1.
After storming back to defeat Pittsburgh in last season's playoffs, the Rangers posted a 3-0-1 record in four meetings during the 2014-15 season series. New York outscored the Pens by a 16-8 margin this season, but the clubs haven't faced each other since the Blueshirts won 5-2 in Pittsburgh on Jan. 18.
New York's seven-game series' win over the Pens last season marked the club's first-ever victory over Pittsburgh in the postseason. The Rangers had lost the previous four encounters before charging back to defeat Pittsburgh a year ago.