Kovacevic: Rangers tired? Step on the gas
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Tanner Glass has a pretty good grasp of how lousy the New York Rangers might feel after the coming weekend.
“For me, the back-to-back games, that's when you feel it,” the Penguins' most physical forward was saying Thursday at Consol Energy Center. “I mean, practice is one thing, but hockey — no, playoff hockey — that's another level. Guys have trouble sleeping after a playoff game. You're still all jacked up, way after the game ends. And then you have to get out of bed and go right at it again the next day … it's tough, man.”
Now, extrapolate that to reflect the Rangers' ridiculous schedule issued by the NHL for this second round of Stanley Cup playoffs that opens Friday night at Consol, goes again Sunday, then flips Monday to Madison Square Garden. That'll be five games in seven days for the Rangers, who eliminated Philadelphia in Game 7 on Wednesday. It'll also be six games in nine days, not to mention four travel days and all the requisite bumps, bruises and bloody knuckles that come with facing the Flyers.
“A quick exhale” was how the Rangers' Brad Richards described the 45 free hours they'll get.
Sure sets up well for the home team, doesn't it?
And no, not just because the Penguins have enjoyed three full days of rest since Game 6 in Columbus. There are all kinds of favorable elements falling into place:
• They're all healthy, save for Brooks Orpik. Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale practiced again Thursday and declared themselves ready.
• Sidney Crosby, for whatever is or isn't wrong with him, got a chance to heal ... or not heal. Evgeni Malkin, too, looks all the way back after the Game 6 hat trick.
• They're finally clicking as a collective, coming off what Dan Bylsma on Thursday labeled “our two best games all year long.”
• They got the matchup they should want, even if they'd never say so. The Rangers are better than the Flyers, if you ask me, but let's not pretend the Penguins could avoid seeing red as soon as they saw orange. No chance. It would have been another debacle.
• They'd never say this, either, but looking at the other Eastern bracket with Boston and Montreal, the long-expected coronation of the Bruins might not happen. The Canadiens' speed will give them fits. And no matter the outcome, those teams have a rich — including recent — history of vicious playoff confrontations. Neither will emerge unscathed.
So … sweep, sweep, take out some equally worn-down team from the ultra-competitive West, and it's back down the Boulevard of the Allies, right?
Yeah, maybe not.
“We'll try to take advantage of their schedule, for sure,” Kris Letang was saying. “But they're on a roll right now. They're on a high. They won a Game 7. We'll try to disrupt that.”
That would be a smart place to start, if only because letting the Rangers slip through these first three games without additional bumping and bruising and bloody-lipping would not only wipe out this scheduling fortune but also reverse the advantage.
“This is a big asset for us,” Glass said. “We've got to make it count.”
“They just played, and we had a break,” Malkin said. “We need to use speed, to forecheck. We have a great chance to win.”
To ensure they do, the Penguins will need to perform at the levels of Games 5 and 6 against Columbus, maybe higher.
They'll need to attack the Rangers' best player, Henrik Lundqvist, by crashing his crease. That's what the Penguins did — eventually — to Sergei Bobrovsky and, in no coincidence, altered the course of the series. Lundqvist beat the Flyers, but he often looked shaky, uncertain, back on his heels. The last thing the Penguins should allow is any comfort zone.
“We have to go hard to the net,” Letang said. “Make things tough on him.”
They'll need to fend off a faster New York offense that, in a way, is paced by the superlative skating of Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarello up front. Those two aren't the top scoring threats, but they can change how an opponent defends the Rangers because of how they can freak out defensemen.
“Not many guys have the street speed those two possess,” Rob Scuderi was saying. “But I don't think you ever want to give up your gap or the blue line without a fight. When you do that, even if they don't get by you, they can pull up, hit a late man, go down the boards for a cycle … it's a can of worms.”
And of course, they'll need Marc-Andre Fleury to cram those worms back into the can.
Penguins in five. Or all bets are off.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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