Mark Madden: With playoff series looming, Penguins-Rangers matchup has extra importance

Thursday’s matchup between the Penguins and host New York Rangers isn’t a playoff game.

But it’s got implications beyond a mere regular-season contest.

The Penguins and Rangers are a good bet to play in the first round of the playoffs. The Rangers have beaten the Penguins two straight times, dropping a 1-0 decision before that.

The Rangers have clearly been the better team over the course of those three meetings. Momentum might not start now when it comes to the playoffs, but it could.

The Penguins’ style is based on speed. But the Rangers are faster. When the teams play, the Penguins are too often chasing the game. For example, the Penguins’ defensemen are coached to join the rush and pinch constantly. But if the puck turns over or the pinch fails, the Penguins have difficulty tracking back against the quicker Rangers.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan won’t pursue a Plan B. Live by speed, die by speed. Perhaps the Penguins can find another gear.

The Rangers have also been adrenalized by trade deadline gets like forwards Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp and Tyler Motte and defenseman Justin Braun. No stars, just energy and glue. Perfect, easy fit. Rickard Rakell has boosted the Penguins, but it’s a different kind of help.

The biggest mysteries trickling out of the Penguins’ first three games vs. the Rangers are their low shot and goal totals: They averaged 24 of the former and totaled four of the latter.

Meantime, the whole of the NHL has averaged 31 shots and 2.57 goals against the Rangers. Good looks have been plentiful for most foes. That’s how Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin has played himself into the MVP conversation. You don’t do that by making easy saves.

But that’s mostly all he’s had to make against the Penguins. They’ve barely made Shesterkin break a sweat.

Here’s thinking that’s mostly because of the Rangers’ ferocious forecheck. The Penguins get penned in their own end too frequently and too long. Their offensive-zone time is limited. Chances off the rush don’t materialize because their breakout is harried and haphazard.

That said, hockey changes come the playoffs. Attacking off the rush is limited. Time in the offensive zone becomes even more important. The Penguins need more of it against the Rangers.

That means more puck control and better offensive-zone entries. Speed ​​isn’t as critical when you have possession. Not that the Penguins are slow. But the Rangers are faster.

The Penguins committed 13 giveaways in the last meeting of the teams, a 3-2 Rangers victory March 29 at Pittsburgh. The Rangers had two. That margin is unacceptable.

Shesterkin has struggled a bit lately: He’s allowed three or more goals in five of his last nine games, getting yanked twice. His goals-against average in that period is 3.19 — not cataclysmically bad, but over a goal higher than his season figure of 2.14. His save percentage over that span is .891, far worse than his season mark of .933.

Shesterkin, 26, is in just his second full NHL season. He’s played 46 games, his career high at any pro level. Has Shesterkin hit a wall? (He’s also played just one NHL playoff game.)

In the matchup vs. the Penguins, the Rangers have the best goalie, best defenseman (2021 Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox) and top scorer (Chris Kreider has 47 goals, including 25 on the power play).

The Penguins have the best player in Sidney Crosby and the edge at center, Hockey’s most influential position besides goalie. But the Rangers also have an X-factor talent in crafty and creative winger Artemi Panarin.

The Penguins have more postseason experience.

Both coaches are excellent, but Sullivan gets the nod over Gerard Gallant.

But the Rangers are faster, and the Penguins nonetheless want speed to be paramount.

All this changes if the Penguins lose to the Rangers, then to visiting Washington on Saturday. Then the fourth-place Capitals might be within striking distance of the Penguins in third.

The Penguins don’t want that.

Sullivan has always been a coach that spurns an alternative approach. He wants the Penguins to play their way, period. Fast feet, fast decisions. His dressing room backs him up on that.

But in 1992, the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins trailed Washington three games to one in a first-round playoff series. The Capitals were beating the Penguins at their own high-octane style, winning one game 6-2 and another 7-2.

So, captain Mario Lemieux suggested playing a 1-4 delay forecheck. A trap. They had to slow down the Capitals.

Coach Scotty Bowman agreed. The Penguins won three straight, taking Game 7 by a pedestrian 3-1 score. They went on to win their second straight Cup.

Lemieux did not want to trap. But he did want to win.

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