New York Rangers begin battle with Pittsburgh Penguins for playoff position
In a little over a month, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers could be preparing to oppose each other in an Eastern Conference playoff series.
Over the next two weeks, the teams will have three chances to see how they match up, beginning Friday night when the Rangers host the Penguins.
The Rangers won the only meeting between the teams so far this year, a 1-0 game at home on Feb. 26. And they’ll meet again Tuesday in Pittburgh, then close the season series on April 7 at Madison Square Garden.
If the season ended now, the Metropolitan Division rivals would be paired. With 85 points, the Rangers are in third place in the division. The Capitals (80 points) hold the second wild-card berth.
New York Rangers have to step up
Without much separation between the two, the upcoming games in the season series are so vital. And both the Rangers and Penguins will be trying the get the edge coming off disappointing outcomes.
New York inched closer to the Penguins in the standings by sweeping a back-to-back set last weekend at Tampa Bay and Carolina when goalies Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev combined to stop 72 of 73 shots.
On Tuesday, the Rangers turned in one of their worst displays of the season with a 7-4 loss to the host New Jersey Devils. After Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox scored in the opening 20 minutes, the Rangers allowed five goals in the second period, including four in a span of 6:01.
“We had a good first and then fell asleep at the wheel,” New York’s Chris Kreider said after scoring his 42nd goal. “They jumped on our turnovers. The majority of the game is mental. We stopped playing simple.”
Tuesday’s ugly loss dropped the Rangers to 4-4-0 over their past eight contests, a stretch that includes lopsided losses to the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues on March 8 and 10, respectively.
“We had a great first, everyone was in a good mindset, and I think it was just mental errors, some stupid hockey by everyone,” New York’s Ryan Strome said. “Just mistakes that cost us. Weak hockey and soft hockey.”
New looks for the New York Rangers
The Rangers are playing their first home game with newcomer Andrew Copp after he had two assists in his debut at New Jersey and could unveil some new lines. During practice on Thursday, Kreider and Zibanejad were flanked by Frank Vatrano and Copp skated with Artemi Panarin and Strome.
Alexis Lafrenière, who was benched for most of the third period against the Devils was moved down to the third line.
According to the coach, the reasons for the limited ice time was due to a combination of the score, plus wanting to give the new Rangers more reps with different looks.
“It was the score and to be fair to Laffy, I know he like playing left wing better than right wing,” coach Gerard Gallant admitted via the team’s YouTube channel. “We’re trying some new people. It’s not picking on Laffy, it’s not that at all.”
When the coach was pressed if it was something Lafrenière did defensively, he quickly turned that around to the entire team.
“Not Laffy, the team,” he said regarding defensive issues. “We went into Tampa Bay and played one of our better games…then we have a good first period (in New Jersey) and have a stinker the rest of the way. I think it was more of a mental thing than anything else.”
Penguins present tough challenge for Rangers
The Penguins, who are 8-2-2 in their past 12 games, saw their three-game winning streak stopped when they took a 4-3 shootout loss to the host Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday. Kris Letang scored the tying goal during a third-period power play, but Bryan Rust and Sidney Crosby were unable to score in the shootout.
“It was a hard-fought point, but I don’t think we had our best,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “It was just one of those nights where it was a struggle. But I give our players credit. I thought we competed hard. We just scratched and clawed to try to find a way to get a point.”
Despite Sullivan thinking it was a struggle offensively, the Penguins went 2-for-2 on the power play and are 3-for-6 in their past two contests after going 1-for-22 over the previous seven.
Pittsburgh is 7-2-0 in the past nine meetings against the Rangers, including a 1-0 home win on Feb. 26 when Evgeni Malkin scored the only goal during a power play in the third.
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–Field Level Media contributed to this report