- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- And so we pause to fly, drive, pack, unpack, as the Eastern Conference semifinal between Pittsburgh and New York returns to Steeltown.
What have we learned as the Penguins take a 3-1 series lead into Sunday's fifth game?
Let's find out.
The King Versus Smilin' Marc
There is a perception that three-time Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist hasn't been very good in this series. That's a bit harsh. The man they call King Henrik in Rangers circles really has had only one off game. The problem is, that blip took place in Game 3 when the Rangers desperately needed to hold serve at home. Lundqvist was ordinary, allowing five goals on 17 shots, and the Pens took a 3-0 series lead with the 5-3 victory. Part of the issue with Lundqvist is perception. He appears to be playing poorly because his counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, has outplayed him for most of the series. Not by a lot -- we're not talking about a meltdown of Jose Theodore proportions here -- but enough. Fleury has allowed nine goals on 122 shots in this series, while Lundqvist has allowed 11 goals on 103 shots. Both have registered a shutout in the series, with Lundqvist turning in his best performance in a must-win Game 4 on Thursday. The problem for the Rangers is that Lundqvist can't afford another mortal game. And while Fleury has been outstanding from the moment the playoffs began -- his .940 save percentage is tops among all playoff netminders, and his 1.76 goals-against average is second to Chris Osgood of Detroit -- you wonder whether he's due for a wobble or two. The Rangers sure hope so, or they can forget about heading back to New York for Game 6 on Monday.
The Ordinary Superstars
If you figured that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the superlative centers that drive the Pittsburgh Penguins' offensive machinery, would be on the ice pretty much all the time, you figured dead wrong. In fact, the ice time allotted the two is one of the most surprising elements of this series to date. As of Friday morning, Malkin ranked 17th among all forwards in the playoffs with 20:33 in average ice time per night. Crosby was 37th at 19:16. Part of that is the fact that neither spends much time killing penalties. But the major factor has been the strong play of the Penguins' other forward lines.
For the past couple of games, the Jordan Staal-Jarkko Ruutu-Tyler Kennedy trio has been as good a unit as the Penguins have had on the ice. And a fourth-line group that includes Georges Laraque, Adam Hall, Gary Roberts and Max Talbot (who was injured for Game 4) has provided valuable minutes cycling the puck in the offensive zone. When his team goes 7-0 to start the playoffs, it's hard to argue with how Michelle Therrien is handing out his ice time.
It will be interesting to watch how quickly Therrien moves to up the Crosby and Malkin exposure if things don't go well in Game 5 on Sunday. During the team's first playoff loss Thursday night, Therrien used Crosby and Malkin together with Staal in the latter stages of the game.
If you're trailing, "you know you're going to go with our offensive weapons," Therrien said Friday.
But when the team is even or leading, "I have got confidence, defensively, with all of our centers," Therrien said.
The Pittsburgh coach was asked whether he could pick between Crosby and Malkin if he had to choose one around whom to build an NHL franchise. Therrien refused to bite, saying he has two children at home and could never choose between the two of them.
"Those are the kinds of questions I can't answer," Therrien said.
Getting A Hate On
The New York Rangers have been at their most effective in this series when they have pressured the Penguins with a strong, physical forecheck and when they have taken the body all over the ice. That accounted for most of their play in Game 3 and the latter stages of Game 4. By the end of Game 4, the Penguins' tempers were fraying a bit, and there was the unusual sight of Crosby and Malkin together in the penalty box. As time was running out in the Rangers' victory Thursday, Malkin slew-footed Rangers defenseman Paul Mara, who called the MVP candidate "classless" after the game. On Friday, Therrien described it as a heat of the moment thing.
"That's the way he is. He likes to win. He wants to compete," Therrien said of Malkin.
"It's not a spearing like Avery did on Fleury," Therrien said, referring to an incident at the end of Game 2 in which Rangers agitator Sean Avery appeared to stick Fleury in the back of the legs. "This was just a trip."
There's no question the Penguins can play it rough and tough, too, with the likes of Laraque, Brooks Orpik, Ryan Malone, et al. But the less physical the play, the better for the Pens' talented forwards. Of course, the tougher the play, the greater the likelihood of penalties being called, and that's a dangerous line to approach, especially for the Rangers.
It might be one of the great truisms of playoff hockey: If you can't produce on the power play or can't stop the opposing team's power play efforts, you're pretty much done like dinner. The stats bear this out; it's not just some myth perpetrated by us in the media on you, the hockey viewing/reading public.
Three of the four top power-play units in the playoffs belong to teams that are not just alive but have commanding leads in their respective series. Philadelphia, Dallas and Pittsburgh rank second, third and fourth, respectively, among the 16 teams. Calgary, whose top-ranked power play was instrumental in keeping the overmatched Flames alive for seven games, fell out in the first round against San Jose.
The Rangers rank 10th among the 16 playoff teams in power-play efficiency, yet they bested the Penguins on that front for the first time in Game 4, scoring once on the power play while the Pens were denied a power-play goal for the first time in the playoffs.
San Jose ranks 11th and Montreal 13th on the power play.
On the other side of the coin, the Penguins' penalty kill has been deadly efficient and ranks first among teams still alive, having allowed just four power-play goals in eight games. The Penguins also have allowed just 34 power-play chances, far fewer than the Rangers (41) or any other team still chasing the dream this spring.
Just to show you that stats can be misleading, though -- you'd imagine that taking a lot of penalties is bad, but the Flyers lead the playoffs in the number of times they've been shorthanded (53) and the number of power-play goals they've given up (12), yet hold a 3-1 series lead over Montreal. Go figure.
Out of the Blue
Earlier in the series, Rangers coach Tom Renney talked about how quickly Rangers defenseman Marc Staal had matured as an NHL defenseman. He talked about how he had expected to ease Staal, the older brother of Pittsburgh center Jordan Staal, into the various situations so as not to overwhelm him. But Staal, the 12th overall pick in the 2005 draft, made it clear pretty early on this season he was ready to take a big bite out of as much responsibility as Renney would give him. Five games into this round, Staal has been the team's best defenseman and continues to impress. He leads all rookies in average ice time per game (22:01), has three points and is plus-5. Across the hallway, Tyler Kennedy, who looks like he got lost looking for the local high school hockey tournament, has been a veritable dervish and has helped make the Pens' third line dangerous on almost every shift. Honorable mention to Pascal Dupuis, who also has been a bit of a revelation with four points and who is a key member of the Pens' penalty killing unit.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
Henrik Lundqvist has not played nearly as poorly as some think. And the Rangers finally have figured out that a physical style and pressure work versus the Pens. What does it all mean? This series is far from over.