The New York Rangers are one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season. While some expected them to take a step forward this season and potentially compete for a playoff spot, I don't think many people had them competing with Carolina on top of the Metropolitan Division in the final week of the season.
The Rangers will meet the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. These teams met three straight years in the playoffs from 2014-16, with the Rangers winning two of those series. In the 2022 version of this playoff rivalry, oddsmakers are projecting an extremely tight series. Currently at BetMGM, both the Rangers and the Penguins are -110 to win this series, making it a virtual pick'em and the tightest first-round series in the league.
Recency bias or a trend?
The Rangers finished the regular season with a 52-24-6 record, compiling six more wins and seven more points than the Penguins. For that reason, the Rangers will have home-ice advantage with the first two games of this series taking place at Madison Square Garden.
However, if you dig deeper than the standings, there's a fascinating picture being painted.
Through the first three-quarters of the season, I would consistently tell myself, "I can't wait to bet against the Rangers in the playoffs." Sure, some of that was the jealous Islanders fan in me, but the Rangers were pulling it off with smoke and mirrors. They were getting shelled almost every night, playing the whole game in their defensive zone and then would somehow win the game 2-1 because they scored a power play goal and Igor Shesterkin made 44 saves on 45 shots.
Those are the types of teams I look to fade. If you look at the season-long metrics, they paint a bleak picture for the Rangers. Amongst all playoff teams, the Rangers have the worst expected-goal rate. They are one of just two teams in the postseason below 50% in that regard. They rank bottom-5 in generating offense, and their defensive metrics are slightly below average.
On the flip side, the Penguins rank seventh in expected goal rate, sandwiched by teams like Carolina, Tampa Bay and Colorado, teams we can all admit are good teams. They rank 8th in offensive creation and 5th in defensive prevention at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick.
However, it wouldn't be fair to ignore recent trends, especially when you consider how active the Rangers were at the NHL trade deadline. Since March 22nd, which was the deadline, the results have been vastly different for New York. Teams have played around 20 games each during this timeframe, which makes the sample size smaller but still relevant.
During this time, the Rangers rank ninth in expected-goal rate at 52.3%. Pittsburgh ranks 11th. The Rangers still are not generating much offense at 5-on-5, but their defense has been a top-4 unit in the league over the past six weeks. On the other hand, Pittsburgh's play has declined during this time period. They've gone from eighth in offense and fifth in defense to 12th in both categories.
Do we trust the Rangers from the past six weeks? Is Pittsburgh's play falling? If this series was two months ago, the Penguins would be an easy bet. With these teams in their current form, it becomes much harder.
Breaking down the rosters
When looking at Pittsburgh's roster, you start with the formidable duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The two have been together since Malkin's rookie year in 2006, and they've won three Cups together over that time. Both are now getting older, with Crosby at 34 and Malkin at 35, and it's becoming obvious that this might be one of the last chances these two have of adding to their Hall-of-Fame resumes.
While they might not be as dominant as they were a decade ago, both are still top-level players in this league. Crosby would have pushed the 100-point mark if he played all 82 games, but will have to settle for scoring 84 points in 69 games. Malkin scored 20 goals and was better than a point-per-game despite missing 41 games.
Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust have gone from "Sidney Crosby's linemates" to borderline elite players in their own right. Guentzel scored 40 goals and tied Crosby for the team lead in points, while Rust played at nearly a point-per-game pace himself.
Behind those four, the Penguins have solid depth. Jeff Carter has been productive in Pittsburgh and revived his career, Rickard Rakell has 13 points in 19 games since being acquired at the deadline and players like Kasperi Kapanen and Evan Rodrigues have proven to be good depth.
With the Rangers, they too have elite talent. Artemi Panarin finished with 96 points, good for 11th in the league. Mika Zibanejad drove his own line, scoring 81 points in 81 games without the benefit of playing with Panarin at even strength. Chris Kreider scored 52 goals, the third-most in the league.
Ryan Strome and trade deadline acquisitions Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp have gone a long way in lengthening the Rangers lineup. That's allowed coach Gerard Gallant to move players like Dryden Hunt off the top line and into a bottom-line role that he's more suited for.
An x-factor in this series might be the play of the Rangers' young forwards. Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko showed signs of growth throughout the season, but the production isn't at the level that you'd expect out of former No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks. Can they continue to grow their games and chip in offensively in these playoffs? If they can, the Rangers have three dangerous lines.
Defensively, both teams have a top-end No. 1 guy, though you'd have to give the edge to the Rangers guy. Adam Fox won the Norris in 2021 and he followed that up with a 74-point campaign this year. Kris Letang had a good season himself for Pittsburgh, scoring 68 points, but he's not as adept as Fox in his own zone.
However, beyond that on the back end, you'd have to give the edge in defensive depth to the Penguins, mainly because they don't have an albatross in their top 6 like the Rangers do with Patrik Nemeth. Braden Schneider is a rookie and still learning the league, which is also a potential question mark for the Rangers.
However, any questions about the defensive unit are quickly erased when you turn your attention to the crease.
For the Rangers, Igor Shesterkin has had one of the best goaltending seasons in recent memory. He was a -1000 favorite to win the Vezina before the market was taken off the board, and he'll almost certainly receive some love in the Hart Trophy voting, which is rare for a goaltender.
Shesterkin posted a .935 save percentage. The next closest goaltender was Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders, who posted a .925. According to Evolving-Hockey, Shesterkin posted a +37.2 goals saved above expectation (GSAx) on the season. The next-closest goalie was Frederik Andersen, who posted a +28.5 mark.
On the other side, the Penguins are going to be without their No. 1 goaltender. Tristan Jarry had a great bounce-back season after being the main reason the Penguins lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2021. He ranked seventh in the league in save percentage and had a +6.6 GSAx mark. However, he won't be available for at least the first two games of this series and likely more.
That turns the crease over to Casey DeSmith, the usual backup goaltender for Pittsburgh. DeSmith isn't a sieve, but he's having the worst statistical season of his young career this year. DeSmith posted a -1.0 GSAx through 26 games during the regular season.
Pittsburgh was never going to have the goaltending edge in this series, but with Jarry, they hoped they could keep the gap somewhat close. That task becomes a lot tougher with DeSmith between the pipes.
The best bet
As much as it pains me to do this, I think I'm going to have to go with the Rangers in this series. This team is not the team that "lucked" their way through most of the first 55 games of the season. The Rangers are playing much better hockey over the last six weeks. Their commitment to the defensive side of the game has been evident, and that's a scary proposition when you consider how good their goaltender is. Only the Carolina Hurricanes gave up fewer goals than the Rangers this year.
There's also some factors going against the Penguins here. Despite having two generational talents in Crosby and Malkin, Pittsburgh has been bounced in the first round in three straight years. Since winning back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins have won just one playoff series. Additionally, the Rangers won three of four games against the Penguins this year, holding Pittsburgh to just four goals over those four games.
With Jarry out for the Penguins, I think the goaltending disparity will be too much for Pittsburgh to overcome. Shesterkin has series-stealing potential, and I'm not convinced the Penguins are even better than the Rangers to a point where he would need to steal them this series. If DeSmith gives up even one or two questionable goals in this series, the Rangers are good enough defensively to make those goals hold up.
At this pick'em price, I'll back the Rangers to win the series and advance at -110.