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Rossi: Rangers are blue ice the Penguins must melt

| Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, 9:24 p.m.
Penguins and former Rangers winger Carl Hagelin says his former team packs it in defensively. “You know they’re going to back-check aggressively, all of them. So there’s not a lot of room no matter who you’re out there against,” he said. “... We need to make them play our game.”

Mike Sullivan's words were as sharp Tuesday as Sidney Crosby's shots have been lately.

“The past is the past,” Sullivan said.

That leaves the present, which means the New York Rangers, who are probably the Penguins' future playoff opponent.

Again.

So maybe that will be enough to get Sullivan's attention?

But I'm guessing the Rangers already occupy some space in Sullivan's mind. They drafted him as a player. They hired him as an assistant coach.

They just couldn't get a mention from him Tuesday, when Sullivan took questions about the Penguins' next opponent.

The Rangers are more than an opponent, though. They're the blue block of ice that has cooled off the Penguins way too soon the past two springs.

A couple of coaches, a general manager, and a bunch of spare parts have been banished from Consol Energy Center since the Broadway Blueshirts began transitioning the Penguins from the NHL's marquee to its mezzanine.

It's the Penguins' two-pillar foundation the Rangers most damaged.

Heading into the second-round series in 2014, Sidney Crosby was universally recognized as the planet's finest hockey player, and Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were the unquestioned top tandem in the coolest sport on earth.

Then Crosby went without a point in the Rangers' three consecutive wins to turn around that 2014 series the Penguins led, 3-1. A year later, Malkin was blanked in a five-game rematch that went the Rangers' way.

Sullivan wasn't behind the Penguins bench for those series.

Makes sense he wouldn't want to look back.

There was almost nothing to see.

The Penguins scored more than a goal only once against the Rangers after taking control of that 2014 series. It would be easy to praise Henrik Lundqvist, but King Henrik was hardly a Supreme Leader in those wins.

His army did most of the work.

At least the Penguins now can count on some intelligence from a former member of the enemy.

“You know the Rangers pack it in,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “You know they're going to back-check aggressively, all of them. So there's not a lot of room no matter who you're out there against.”

Packing it in. Back-checking. No room.

Sounds like some fun hockey for the paying customers at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday night.

But, wait, because it sounds even worse than you might remember.

“They're very deliberate, very committed,” Hagelin said. “All of their guys, every line, there is commitment to playing strong defense.

“And, yeah, then there's their transition.”

Yes, yes, yes ... the Rangers' transition-fueled attack.

It's only the venomous icing on a cake baked with poisonous ingredients.

The Penguins have lacked the antidote, not a taste for it.

Their newfound fondness for aggressive, attacking offensive hockey probably isn't the formula. Hasn't been historically, anyway.

We'll see soon enough.

Four of their next 23 games are against the Rangers. They could play 11 times in as many weeks if Round 1 of the playoffs delivers Penguins-Rangers III.

The Penguins can't out-Ranger the Rangers.

“We need to make them play our game,” Hagelin said.

Won't be easy.

As entertaining as they've been, as free and easy as they've looked, as plentiful as the scoring chances have come, the Penguin Way under Sullivan is made for winning.

In the regular season, that is.

In the playoffs, the line between winning and losing comes with a question that must begin being answered now that Sullivan has revitalized the Penguins.

Are they built to entertain or win?

Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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