PITTSBURGH — There have been plenty of points of concern for the Rangers over the first three games of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Penguins, including the lack of 60-minute efforts, a handful of defensive breakdowns and a failure to capitalize on crucial power-play opportunities.
However, the Rangers have shown signs of slowly but steadily improving on one of the most vital keys to beating Pittsburgh — and that’s containing Penguins star Sidney Crosby and his top-unit linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
Crosby looks as though he hopped in a time machine and came out as the 20-something version of himself that terrorized the NHL. It’s been vintage Sid the Kid. The 2013 and 2014 Ted Lindsay Award winner, given annually to the most outstanding player in the regular season as voted on by the NHL Players Association. The player who was dubbed “The Next One” and actually was.
The 34-year-old center has simply been unstoppable, but the Rangers have taken note.
Game 3 was the Rangers’ most effective performance against Crosby and Co. The Blueshirts limited his line to just two scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, and gave up only an empty-net goal to Guentzel in the third period.
Through the first two games, the top line had scored five of the Penguins’ six goals in the series.
“It was probably the best we’ve played against them until the end, when they got the empty-netter,” head coach Gerard Gallant said Sunday on the Rangers’ off-day.
“We played well against that line, but the other lines burned us a little bit. It’s just part of the game. Obviously, when they’re on the ice, you’ve got to be aware of who’s on the ice. Like we talked about, we got our matchups that we do a little bit. Our D matchup more against them than our forwards.
“But again, they’re a dangerous line. Crosby is one of the best players in the National Hockey League — if not the best. You got to be aware of that line, they played really well. And I thought we did a pretty good job overall last night.”
The Rangers’ top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano has matched up against the Penguins’ first unit the most in this series. But that has worked out perhaps better for the Penguins, considering the matchup has nullified the Blueshirts’ production from their top players.
But it seems as though there’s a collective understanding in the Rangers’ locker room of how they have to play Crosby in order to contain him.
“Make him play in his zone,” defenseman Justin Braun said. “He’s at his best when he’s coming through the neutral zone with the puck and if you can get on top of him and slow him down. But you kind of saw how special he was [Saturday] night, late in the game he’s just skating around behind the net, you can’t get the puck from him. We got to end his plays a little bit earlier.”
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Braun pointed out the Penguins’ top line has done so much damage in this series already that the Rangers are now much more aware. The Rangers can’t try to go laterally when that trio is on the ice, the veteran defenseman said, because they’re going to turn it into offense.
While Crosby has done his thing and Rust has chipped in blocks and hits, Guentzel has been just as big of a problem. Guentzel has four goals on 17 shots on net in three games.
“He gets to the net,” Gallant said. “He’s a skilled guy, he shoots the puck real well. But he drives the blue paint. We talk about Chris Kreider scoring goals around the blue paint, this guy, he’s around the net all the time. He knows where Sidney is going to be, he knows how to get open and that makes him a good hockey player. He works hard every shift, too.”
The Rangers seem to know exactly what they have to do to limit the Penguins top line as much as possible, now it’s just a matter of execution.