New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Series Preview: Should You Back the Rangers?

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New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Series Preview: Should You Back the Rangers?

With the NHL playoffs just around the corner, eight first-round series are set to begin. The matchup between the Penguins and the Rangers will likely produce one of the tighter series of the round, given how closely matched the two teams are. Still, the series' betting line seems to be a bit mispriced. I wrote about the Rangers' chances of winning the East here, but their matchup with the Penguins offers a unique opportunity to compare the two squads and find a spot of value. Let's dive in.

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New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Series Preview

The Rangers finished with 110 points in the regular season—their best total since the 2014-15 season—and finished second in the Metropolitan Division. As a result, they will have home-ice advantage against the Penguins, who finished in third-place with 103 points. New York had an excellent home record of 27-10-4 in the regular season (25-14-2 on the road), so the advantage may play a factor.

For much of the regular season, the Rangers were a team whose underwhelming results at even-strength called into question their legitimacy as a playoff contender. Since the trade deadline, however, they have seemingly quelled their 5v5 struggles, especially in their own zone. New York's standing in categories that measure a team's defensive play—the rate of shot attempts conceded, expected goals against, and scoring chances conceded off the rush, to name a few—have gone from among the league's worst teams to among its best. Much of that improvement can be attributed to the breakout of K'Andre Miller, whose stellar play on the second defensive pairing with Jacob Trouba took the pressure off of the top pairing.

Meanwhile, the Penguins have regressed from being one of the league's top even-strength teams to around the middle of the pack. Their expected goals results at 5v5 had been on a steady, upward trajectory from the beginning of the season until around late-March, when they seemed to hit a skid. Since then, Pittsburgh has stagnated, winning just five of their last 13 games. Their underlying metrics confirm that this stretch is no fluke, demonstrating that the Penguins are entering the playoffs without any positive momentum.

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Special Teams Advantage

This season, Rangers leaned on their stellar power play to provide scoring during the stretches when their even-strength offense trailed off. The relevance of their power play may diminish due to the tendency of referees to swallow their whistles in the playoffs, but the unit will still see opportunities to contribute. During the regular season, the unit ranked fourth in the league with a scoring rate of 25.4%. The Penguins' power play, by contrast, ranked 19th with a conversion rate of 20.2%.

Pittsburgh's penalty kill was rock-solid for much of the season, but it has faltered of late, allowing six PP goals in their last four games. Interestingly, the unit ranked third in the league in terms of kill rate, yet only 13th-best in terms of expected goals against per 60. This discrepancy implies that the Penguins' penalty kill is worse than the raw numbers indicate, and that it is therefore due for negative regression. Perhaps the unit's struggles over the last four games are a demonstration of that regression.

New York's penalty kill has a similar (albeit smaller) discrepancy—it ranked seventh in success rate, but 12th in xGA/60. However, unlike Pittsburgh's, this penalty kill has only allowed one power play goal in their last four games, and has trended upwards in terms of underlying chance prevention metrics. Also unlike Pittsburgh, New York will not be facing an elite power play. Overall, both special teams matchups are pointing towards the Rangers holding an advantage.

X-Factor in Goal

The Rangers of this season, just as has been the case for over a decade, can be defined by the outstanding play of their netminder. Igor Shesterkin has had a historic year in goal, one that will garner the vast majority of first-place Vezina votes along with some Hart ones. Shesterkin lead the league with 34.1 goals saved above expected; for reference, Carey Price saved 33.2 goals above expected when he won the Hart Trophy in 2014-15. Shesterkin also logged a .935 save percentage in a year where scoring was wildly elevated across the league; the next highest was Ilya Sorokin with a .925. If Shesterkin can maintain a level of play anywhere close to his regular season performance, the Penguins will have trouble winning this series.

Pittsburgh's problem in this department is exacerbated by the fact that the Penguins will be unable to respond with their own high-end starter. Tristan Jarry had a breakout season, saving 12.8 goals above expected to go along with a .919 save percentage. Unfortunately for the Penguins, Jarry is out with a lower-body injury—he is likely to miss most (if not all) of the series. The Pens will thus turn to backup Casey DeSmith, who had an underwhelming season for Pittsburgh.

Final Thoughts

This series has a compelling narrative—it features an aging, seasoned core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang against a younger group of talented Rangers, most of whom have minimal to no playoff experience. These two teams faced each other three times in the playoffs in the past decade, with the Rangers winning two of the three. I suspect that this series will have a different feel, though—this Rangers team has the scoring punch (see: Artemi Panarin) that the Rangers of the Lundqvist era lacked.

New York won three of the four meetings between the teams during the regular season by a combined score of 11-4. That fact may be of minimal importance to how this series will play out, but it seems worthy of consideration nonetheless. A few weeks ago, after the third-straight New York win over Pittsburgh in under two weeks—a 3-0 shutout—multiple Penguins appeared overtly frustrated with their inability to score on Shesterkin. It remains to be seen whether or not those feelings will spill over into game one, but it's something to monitor.

In all likelihood, this series is destined to go six or seven games. Both teams had their moments during the regular season, and both have solid cases as to why this is their series to lose. That being said, the Rangers have the edge in a couple of key categories, advantages that may be enough to push them over the edge. I like the value on New York to take this one—bet them down to -120 on the series moneyline.

New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Series Pick

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Jason Yamaguchi is an avid New York sports fan. He has a proven record of providing +EV bets by combining traditional handicapping tactics with advanced statistics. You can follow him on Twitter @TopMoneyPicks to view all of his bets, including NFL, NHL, and MLB picks.

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