PITTSBURGH – Don’t worry, Kris Letang insists. The heat is coming.
Sure, the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman admits the New York Rangers don’t invite quite the same animosity inside his team’s locker room as the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Rangers ended any shot of that tantalizing matchup when they beat the Flyers in seven games to set up a showdown with Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting today.
That doesn’t mean Letang expects the next two weeks to be devoid of drama. Far from it.
“I’m pretty sure the intensity will get really high at one point when we start,” Letang said. “The emotion is always going to be part of the game and we’re going to have to control it the best we can.”
It’s an internal battle the Penguins won during a taut first-round series against Columbus. Expected to send the inexperienced Blue Jackets home without much effort, Pittsburgh needed six trying games to advance.
The way the Penguins figure it, that’s a good thing. Forced to respond to adversity, they played what coach Dan Bylsma called their best 120 minutes this season to avoid the upset.
“We keep coming and we keep coming, playing forward and playing in the offensive zone and grinding teams down with that play with that speed and quickness,” Bylsma said. “Games 5 and 6 were our best at playing that way.”
The Penguins will need to do it four more times if they want to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year. They split their four regular-season meetings with New York, all of them coming before the Olympic break.
The Rangers hardly look like the team that was still struggling to find an identity when they last faced Pittsburgh in early February.
Pittsburgh is no longer the patched-together unit that cruised to the Metropolitan Division title despite having stars Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin and James Neal miss large chunks of the season due to injury.
The Penguins are healthy. New York is hot. Five things to look for heading into Game 1.
Slumping stars: Pittsburgh captain and likely NHL MVP Sidney Crosby hasn’t scored a goal in his past 10 playoff games. New York forward Rick Nash has just one in 19 postseason contests wearing a Rangers sweater. Whichever streak ends first could swing the balance of the series.
Crosby had six assists against the Blue Jackets, including one to Malkin in the first period of Game 6 in Columbus that gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead. Crosby knows he needs to take more chances. So does Nash, who can live with the drought as long as the Rangers keep it going.
“That’s all that matters,” Nash said. “I’m going to try to keep getting my game going.”
Lunqvist vs. Fleury: New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury are the two winningest goaltenders in the regular season over the past five years, combining for 334 victories. Yet Lundqvist has yet to lift the Rangers past the conference finals while Fleury has struggled in the playoffs since helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Both had their wayward moments in the first round. Both responded with brilliant play. Whoever gets hot – and stays hot – will give his team the upper hand.
Powerless power play: The Rangers went just 3 for 29 on the power play against Philadelphia, ending the series by failing to score 21 straight times with the man advantage. Not exactly the recipe to hang with the Penguins, who had the NHL’s best power play during the regular season and was a solid 4 for 15 against the Blue Jackets while adding a pair of short-handed goals in the process.
Geno’s back: Like Crosby, Malkin was in the midst of a lengthy goal drought before coming up with his second career playoff hat trick in the clincher against the Blue Jackets. The rust that came with missing the final three weeks of the regular season appeared to vanish as he lit up Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 6. Playing alongside Crosby at times to try to shake loose the cobwebs, Malkin got hot. Expect to see the two MVPs on the ice frequently against New York.
New York minute: Game 1 marks the middle of a busy stretch in which the Rangers will play five times in seven days. That’s fine by them considering it beats the alternative of watching from home.
“Now we’re in the middle of it and we’re in the battle,” New York forward Brad Richards said. “This is when it gets real fun.”