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NFL Playoffs 2022: In every Rangers-Penguins matchup

That Rangers-Penguins first-round series seems to have been on the horizon for months. After weeks of swapping places in the Metropolitan Division rankings and then playing each other three times in 14 days in the last two months of the regular season, the two teams have officially entered the playoff stage.

As the Rangers begin their first postseason since 2017, the Penguins — a team five years away from winning two consecutive Stanley Cups — are looking to get out of the first round for the first time since the 2017-18 campaign that followed their championship run.

Rangers are looking to confirm a dominant performance in the regular season. Players like Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider have struggled to return to the playoffs after four straight seasons. Anything less than a sweep should be considered an accomplishment, especially after the Rangers were swept by the Hurricanes in three games in the 2020 Bubble Playoffs qualifying round.

The Penguins’ core trio, consisting of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, could be in for one last hooray before potentially being separated for the first time in their NHL career. Malkin and Letang are not under contract for next season, and Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall must decide whether to remain competitive or begin a rebuild.

The Post’s Mollie Walker takes a look at how the teams fit together.

goalkeeper

There’s only one other NHL team that could possibly match the Rangers in this category, and that’s the Lightning and their goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. With the Penguins’ No. 1 goaltender Tristan Jarry reportedly having a fractured foot and being considered week-to-week, Rangers and Vezina Trophy leaders Igor Shesterkin have an immense advantage at the net.

Igor Shesterkin
Igor Shesterkin is the leader of the Vezina Trophy.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Shesterkin came into his own in his first 82-game season, posting a staggering .935 save percentage, the third-highest in NHL history among goaltenders with at least 50 appearances. He’s the kind of goalkeeper – much like his predecessor Henrik Lundqvist – who can throw his team over his back and carry him to the goal.

Without Jarry, who was one of the league’s best goaltenders this season after a disastrous implosion against the Islanders in the 2020-21 playoffs, the Penguins have Casey DeSmith and Louis Domingue.

edge: ranger

defense

The Rangers and Penguins are two relatively solid defensive teams. Both finished in the top 5 for the lowest goals-against averages in the NHL, with the Rangers (2.49) having a slight advantage over the Penguins (2.71). This is also reflected in their total number of goals this season. The Rangers gave up the league’s second-lowest with 204, while the Penguins conceded 222.

However, looking at both defensive cores, the Rangers are a bit more complete. The Penguins’ top pair, Letang and Brian Dumoulin, are strong, but the Blueshirts’ top four, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller, are just more rounded.

edge: ranger

Kris Letang, Adam Fox
Kris Letang, Adam Fox
Shutterstock, Getty

Forward

Pittsburgh has a balanced lineup with four lines incredibly deep in the middle, starting with Crosby and Malkin up front and then Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger in the bottom six. Jake Guentzel is in the middle of a career season with 40 goals and 44 assists, and the left winger continues to establish himself as the top scorer.

Bryan Rust completes the Penguins’ lead line with Guentzel and Crosby, while former Ranger Brian Boyle flanks the fourth unit with his 45.2 percent faceoff win. Evan Rodrigues is also an effective fourth line contributor.

Rangers have had a front-loaded lineup for quite some time. Your two best units shoulder much of the offensive. Zibanejad, Kreider and trade-deadline acquisition Frank Vatrano provide a dynamic scoring line alongside Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp, another trade-deadline acquisition.

The drop in scoring from the top two lines to the bottom two is why Pittsburgh has the edge here. But if the kids – Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko – can make their mark on the scoreboard, Rangers will be in good shape.

edge: penguins

Special teams

It will be a fun category to watch just because Rangers have one of the better power plays (25.2 percent) and Penguins have one of the better penalty kills (84.4). But the Rangers aren’t all that far behind Pittsburgh on the PK (82.3), making them a bigger threat in the grand scheme of special teams play. In fact, Rangers’ eight shorthanded goals this season are the sixth-most in the NHL.

edge: ranger

Gerald Galant
Gerald Galant
Jason scenes

coaching

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is in his seventh season with this group and has been in an interesting position in recent years as the organization nears a fork in the road. He’s certainly familiar with his players, but another first-round exit wouldn’t help Sullivan’s case remain boss of the bank, especially with a rebuild steadily edging closer.

While Gerard Gallant only coached past the first round once, back when the Golden Knights reached the cup final in their inaugural 2017/18 season, the Rangers head coach’s coaching style helped transform the blueshirts.

Rangers have thrived under Gallant and his old-school approach. It should be easy to translate into the postseason.

edge: ranger

forecast

If they don’t get hit by a star in their first playoff appearance in five years, Rangers should be able to prevail.

Rangers in six

https://nypost.com/2022/05/02/nfl-playoffs-2022-inside-every-rangers-penguins-matchup/ NFL Playoffs 2022: In every Rangers-Penguins matchup

JOE HERNANDEZ

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