By Vin A. Cherwood
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Gerard Gallant isn’t worried about his team’s lack of playoff experience, not even going up against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that is in the postseason for the 16th straight year.
Gallant has led the New York Rangers to a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division in his first season, their first playoff appearance in five years other than the qualifying round in 2020. They finished with 52 wins — 25 more than they had the previous year in the shortened season.
Now they have home-ice advantage against Pittsburgh for this best-of-seven first-round series that starts tonight.
“I like our team, I like where we got a good mix of young guys that took a step this year for us big time,” Gallant said. “I think we can make a run. I don’t know if we’re going to, but I think we’ve good as good a chance as anybody else.”
The Penguins have the longest current streak of playoff appearances in North American sports, but have not won a series the last three years. They reached the second round in 2018 after winning the Stanley Cup the previous two years.
Pittsburgh stumbled down the stretch this season, going 7-9-2 over the final 18 games. Coach Mike Sullivan is confident his team’s experience will help them.
“There isn’t a more accomplished core group of players in the game than this core group that’s here right now,” Sullivan said. “These guys are battle-tested, they’ve been through a lot. They’ve had a lot of success but they’ve also had their disappointments and I think the experience you gain through those can only help you in the challenges that you have moving forward.”
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang lead the core of eight Penguins that are still around from the team that won its last Cup five years ago.
“Playoff is a different animal, the intensity is way higher,” Letang said. “To deal with the ups and downs, either with games, or a shift or a period, you have to be able to stay calm and focus on what you have to do and make sure you don’t get carried away with the crowd or penalties or power plays … managing emotions, stuff like that, controlling the game.”
The Rangers have just two players — forwards Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider — left from the team that reached the second round in 2017. About a dozen players remain from the team that was swept 0-3 in the qualifying round by Carolina two years ago. Artemi Panarin, who was in his first season in New York that year, downplayed any sense of motivation from that disappointment.
“I don’t hear anything in the locker room about the bubble,” he said, before smiling and adding, “Maybe I don’t speak English well enough.”
Igor Shesterkin is a Vezina Trophy candidate for the Rangers after going 36-13-4 with six shutouts. His 2.07 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage were the best in the league. He was 3-1 with a 1.01 GAA and .960 save-percentage in four starts against the Penguins.
The Penguins are expected to be without Tristan Jarry (34-18-6, 2.42 GAA, .919 save percentage) at the start of the series while he deals with a lower-body injury sustained more than two weeks ago. Casey DeSmith (11-6-5, 2.79, .914) will get the nod in his place.
The Rangers won three of four meetings during the season, including the last three, outscoring the Penguins 11-4.
“Now it’s 0-0, everyone starts at zero,” Zibanejad said. “I don’t think it makes a huge difference.”
The Rangers were fourth on the power play and seventh in penalty killing. Kreider led the league with 26 power-play goals, and Zibanejad had 15.
The Penguins were 19th on the power play and third on the kill. Malkin and Bryan Rust led the team with nine power play goals, and Crosby had eight.
Kreider had an MVP-caliber season with 52 goals and 25 assists, and Panarin (96 points), Zibanejad (81) and Adam Fox (74) gave the Rangers four players with at least 70 points for just the fourth time in franchise history. The last time came during their last Cup-winning season in 1993-94.
Crosby (31 goals, 53 assists) and Guentzel (40, 44) led the Penguins in scoring. Rust (24) and Malkin (20 goals, 22 assists in 41 games) were also 20-goal scorers, and Letang led the way with 58 assists.
Panarin (upper body injury) and forward Andrew Copp (lower body) sat out the last two games for the Rangers after their playoff seeding was set. Both returned to practice on Sunday, while defenseman Ryan Lindgren was the only absence for what Gallant said was maintenance.
In addition to Jarry, the Penguins will also be without forward Jason Zucker at the beginning of the series due to an undisclosed injury sustained last week.