In order for the New York Rangers to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years, the club is going to have to do something its never done before: beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs.
The Rangers hope to strike first in this fifth postseason meeting between the franchises, as they visit Pittsburgh for Friday's Game 1 battle at CONSOL Energy Center.
The Penguins are 4-0 all-time in postseason series against the Blueshirts and boast a 16-4 record over those four playoff encounters. The only time New York was able to post more than one win in a series against the Pens was in the 1992 Division Finals, when Pittsburgh downed the Rangers in six games en route to its second straight Stanley Cup title.
The most recent playoff encounter was in the 2008 conference semifinals when Pittsburgh ousted the Rangers in five games.
New York, which made the conference finals in 2012, is in the second round for the third straight season after beating Philadelphia in seven games in the opening round. Home-ice advantage came in handy for the Blueshirts, as they claimed a 2-1 win at Madison Square Garden in the final test against the Flyers, improving to 6-0 all-time in Game 7s on home ice.
In this round, however, the Rangers will have to prove they can win on the road against the Metropolitan Division champion Penguins.
"We're battle-tested and ready for the next series," said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. "Philly was a real tough opponent, and you have to give them credit, it was a great series, but we know if you look on paper Pittsburgh is probably one of the best teams in the league. They were (13) points ahead of us in the regular season, so we're going to have our hands full."
The Pens and Rangers split four meetings during the 2013-14 campaign, with both teams recording 2-1-1 records. New York had lost five straight in Pittsburgh before ending that road slide with a 4-3 shootout win on Feb. 7.
Game 2 is scheduled for Sunday in the Steel City, while New York gets to host the third meeting on Monday. Fatigue could be an issue for the Rangers at the start of this series, as New York will have played five games in a span of seven days through Game 3 of this set. The Pens, on the other hand, had three full days of rest heading into Game 1.
Pittsburgh is in the second round after beating Columbus in six games during the conference quarterfinals. The Pens are after a second straight trip to the East finals after getting swept by Boston in the penultimate playoff round last spring.
A big topic of conversation in the middle of the first round was Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's lack of goal-scoring. But, after Malkin turned in a hat trick to help Pittsburgh clinch the series in Game 6, that likely puts an end to the discussion for now.
Malkin ended with seven points on three goals and four assists. Crosby failed to score a goal in six games, but with six assists to his credit it's difficult to say he was unproductive. Still, Crosby, the odds-on favorite to win this season's Hart Trophy, hasn't recorded a goal in his last 11 playoff games and if he goes long without scoring one in this series it could become an issue once again.
Crosby and Chris Kunitz led Pittsburgh with six points apiece during the season series with New York, with the captain notching a goal and five assists and Kunitz delivering three goals and three helpers. Malkin only played in two of the four meetings and had a goal and an assist.
When things go wrong for Pittsburgh, nobody gets criticized more than No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Last spring, Fleury was replaced by Tomas Vokoun as the club's starting goaltender after Game 4 of the opening round against the New York Islanders and did not start another game in the playoffs. Fleury struggled at times during the conference quarterfinals against Columbus, but not enough for head coach Dan Bylsma to make the switch to current backup Jeff Zatkoff.
For the most part, Fleury was solid against the Blue Jackets in Round 1. He ended the series with a .908 save percentage and 2.81 goals against average. The 29-year-old is 49-36 with a .903 save percentage and .273 GAA throughout his playoff career.
The biggest advantage New York has over the Penguins could be in net, where Rangers backstop Henrik Lundqvist is as steady as they come. The 32-year-old Swede posted a .919 save percentage and 2.11 GAA in the seven games against Philadelphia
Lundqvist is a big reason the Rangers are so difficult to beat in a long series. With its win over Philly, the Blueshirts became the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 in the first round in three consecutive postseasons. In five career Game 7s, Lundqvist is 4-1 with a 1.00 GAA, a .963 save percentage and has allowed two goals or fewer in all five games.
The Rangers threw a balanced scoring attack at Philadelphia, with eight players tied for the team lead with two goals apiece and 17 skaters in all registered at least one point.
Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, both members of Tampa Bay's 2004 Stanley Cup-winning team, led the way with six points on two goals and four assists, while fellow forwards Carl Hagelin, Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello each had two goals and two assists. Even physical forward Daniel Carcillo joined the fun, as the ex-Flyer scored two goals against his former team, including the first marker in Wednesday's 2-1 Game 7 victory.
If there is one guy who needs to get going for New York its the club's top offensive weapon Rick Nash. The big, talented winger led the team with 26 goals during the regular season, but he failed to score against the Flyers while notching four assists. Over 23 career playoff games, Nash only has managed two goals while recording 10 assists.
Zuccarello posted two goals and four assists to lead the Rangers in scoring against the Pens during the season series. Both Fleury and Lundqvist started all four games in net. Pittsburgh's No. 1 netminder had a 3.12 GAA in the season series, while Lundqvist was slightly better with a 2.88 GAA.