The Pittsburgh Penguins and visiting New York Rangers have met just once this season entering their game Sunday, but they figure to get very familiar with each other very quickly.
Sunday’s game will be the first of three meetings between the Metropolitan Division teams in a span of seven days — they also will play in New York on Thursday and Saturday.
The Penguins won the only game between them to this point, 3-2 at home on Dec. 20.
The three head-to-head matchups this week could help define how the Metropolitan stacks up at the end of the season. Pittsburgh, which currently holds the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, sits seven points behind the Rangers, who are third in the division.
The Penguins are 6-1-1 in their past eight games; the Rangers are 4-5-1 in their past 10.
Pittsburgh shook up all four of its forward lines Saturday for a 5-1 win at home against the Philadelphia Flyers. That was in part because newly acquired center Nick Bonino is out week-to-week after having a procedure for a lacerated kidney he suffered during a game Thursday.
But it also was something calculated.
“We’re playing a lot of really important games, and we have a lot of games in a short period of time,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We need four lines to get this done here, and so we put combinations together (Saturday) that we thought gave us balance throughout the lineup, that we could utilize guys that could play to their strengths in different situations.”
That it did, as five different players, all forwards, scored against Philadelphia. Jason Zucker was one of them, and he, has goals in three straight games and eight goals over the past seven games.
It’s not clear whether Pittsburgh will stick with its newly configured lines against the Rangers, but there seems little reason to make significant changes overnight.
“It’s a deep team, and every line can score,” said another newly acquired Penguins forward, Mikael Granlund, who had a goal and an assist Saturday for his first points with his new club.
While Pittsburgh is 2-0-1 three games into a five-game homestand, New York has been strong on the road this season. After a 2-1 overtime win Saturday at Buffalo, the Rangers are 20-8-5 away from home.
Winger Patrick Kane, acquired in one of the bigger moves in the NHL leading up to the trade deadline, has his first three points with his new team over the past two games, including the tying goal Saturday in his hometown of Buffalo.
While Pittsburgh scored three goals in the third period to put away the Flyers, the Rangers were not thrilled with their effort against Buffalo despite the win.
“Late in the (third) period like that of a 1-1 hockey game, to give (up strong) chances, it’s not acceptable for our group,” New York coach Gerard Gallant said. “A lot of guys … should be thankful Igor (Shesterkin, the goalie) made those saves for them.”
The Penguins probably can expect to face backup Rangers goaltender Jaroslav Halak after Shesterkin played against Buffalo.
Conversely, Pittsburgh started backup Casey DeSmith against Philadelphia and seems likely to go with Tristan Jarry on Sunday.