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Rangers vs. Penguins: Breaking down the Stanley Cup playoffs

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NYC PAPERS OUT. Social media use restricted to low res file max 184 x 128 pixels and 72 dpiRobert Sabo/New York Daily News

As they await a first-round date with the rival Penguins, the Rangers will again rely heavily on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who is the difference-maker in Game 7 of last year’s series vs. the Pens.

The Rangers will open a series as the higher seed against the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday night at the Garden for just the second time in their six all-time playoff meetings.

The only other time it happened was in 1992, when the Blueshirts won their franchise’s first-ever Presidents’ Trophy but fell in six games in the second round to the eventual repeat Stanley Cup champion Penguins.

This year’s Rangers, who captured the organization’s third Presidents’ Trophy, would prefer to repeat the history of the 1994 club that won both the regular season and the postseason tournament, as well.

Pittsburgh is opening a series on the road for the time since the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, which it won by beating the Detroit Red Wings. The Blueshirts own just a 1-4 all-time playoff series record against the Penguins, but their recent head-to-head history bodes well.

Last spring, they overcame a 3-1 series deficit to beat Pittsburgh for the first time ever in a second-round, seven-game upset. And this season they beat the Pens in three out of four meetings (3-0-1), including a 5-2 road spanking of Pittsburgh on Jan. 18 in their final clash.

Here are the matchups:

FORWARDS

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby (84 points) and forward Evgeni Malkin (70 points) are two of the top players in the sport, and winger Patric Hornqvist (51 points) has produced, but Pittsburgh’s forward depth is lacking. They badly miss top-six winger Pascal Dupuis (blood clot) and got just three combined goals since March 14 from Chris Kunitz, David Perron and Blake Comeau.

The Rangers, on the other hand, have seven forwards with 45 points or more compared to three for the Pens. That includes team scoring leader Rick Nash (69 points), centers Derick Brassard (60 points) and Derek Stepan (55 points), Martin St. Louis (52 points), Mats Zuccarello (49 points), Chris Kreider (46 points) and rookie center Kevin Hayes (45 points). Respect for Crosby’s and Malkin’s 2009 Cup run and talents is the only thing keeping this matchup close.

NYC PAPERS OUT. Social media use restricted to low res file max 184 x 128 pixels and 72 dpiRobert Sabo/New York Daily News

Alain Vigneault guides the Rangers to their first Presidents’ Trophy since 1994, but will history repeat itself with a Stanley Cup or with Vigneault’s Vancouver teams that fell short?

EDGE: Even

DEFENSEMEN

The Rangers’ Kevin Klein (broken left forearm) won’t play in Game 1 and could be out longer, but Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal still lead what many coaches consider the NHL’s best defensive corps, including Dan Boyle and deadline acquisition Keith Yandle.

Pittsburgh is missing top defenseman and third-leading scorer Kris Letang (concussion, 54 points) and active second-year defenseman Olli Maatta (shoulder). Paul Martin, Ian Cole, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy and the leaders, but veteran Christian Ehrhoff and rookie Derrick Pouliot have been banged up, so the Pens also may have to rely on AHLers Taylor Chorney, Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington.

EDGE: Rangers

GOALIES

All 30 general managers would take Henrik Lundqvist over Marc-Andre Fleury if there were a draft tomorrow, but Fleury is the one with a Stanley Cup. Lundqvist is still searching for one as he prepares to make his 93rd career playoff start, which will tie Walt Tkaczuk for the most in franchise history. Lundqvist (2.25 goals against average, .922 save percentage) and Fleury (2.32 goals against, .922 percent) had similar regular season numbers, but Fleury has become notorious for postseason collapses since his 2009 championship. Lundqvist, on the other hand, was the difference in Game 7 of last spring’s second-round upset. He also is fully recovered from a blood vessel injury that sidelined him from Feb. 4 through March 26, going 5-2-0 in his final seven starts.

EDGE: Rangers

COACHES

Alain Vigneault ranks 19th in NHL coaching history with 520 regular season wins. He has won the Presidents’ Trophy three times in the last five seasons with the Vancouver Canucks twice (2011 and 2012) and the Rangers this season. He lost in the Cup Final in 2011 and lost in the first round in 2012 with Vancouver, but hopes to make a second straight trip with the Rangers to the Final and win this spring. He has a 50-53 career postseason record. Pittsburgh’s Mike Johnston, in contrast, is a rookie head coach and something looks off with his team, injuries aside. He replaced Dan Bylsma, who was fired after losing to the Rangers last year. Johnston also is coaching with a heavy heart, as his mother passed away in March.

EDGE: Rangers

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Penguins rank a favorable 10th in power play efficiency (19.3 percent) compared to the Rangers’ 21st-place finish (16.8%), but Pittsburgh also will be missing its primary puck-mover, defenseman Kris Letang. Both teams have strong penalty kills. Pittsburgh finished third at 84.8 percent ahead of the Rangers’ 84.3 percent that landed sixth in the NHL. But New York’s inconsistent power play may struggle to be a factor against such a strong shorthanded Penguins unit.

EDGE: Penguins

PREDICTION

The Penguins deserve respect, and if the Rangers get complacent for even a moment, Pittsburgh is capable of wresting control of the series. Vigneault and the team’s leaders, however, will not allow themselves to take Pittsburgh lightly. And since the Rangers are a much better, deeper, faster team – and excellent on the road – this will be an uncharacteristically fast series for the Blueshirts.

RANGERS IN 5

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