NEW YORK – So the pundits are picking the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup, and Madison Square Garden is rocking for the home opener, and coach John Tortorella sends out tough guy Arron Asham for the opening faceoff, and Asham lines up next to the guy filling his old role on his old team.
"Want to do this?" Asham asks.
"Sure," Tanner Glass says.
And so they do it. They drop the gloves and fight two seconds in, trading punches, swinging away. They do it for a good, long time right in front of the benches, as the fans roar even louder, and it sets the tone all right – for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Pens score on the power play less than two minutes later, and they walk out of MSG with a 6-3 victory Sunday night, and though no one should read much into anything two days into this crazy lockout-shortened season, look at this:
First, the Pens went into Philadelphia and beat the Flyers, the team that eliminated them in the first round of the playoffs last year. Then, they went into New York and beat the Rangers, the team that seems to be everyone's darling this year. They chased Henrik Lundqvist, the reigning winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender, who hadn't been chased in almost two years.
Twice in two days, they pacified a loud, hostile arena – and they turned MSG against the Rangers, drawing boos and shouts and Bronx cheers.
That's back-to-back road wins against Atlantic Division rivals. That's an immediate four-point lead over both, thanks to the Rangers' loss at Boston on Saturday night and the Flyers' loss at Buffalo on Sunday. And that's all while captain Sidney Crosby, playing only his 29th and 30th games in more than two years, was quiet.
"Extremely big wins for us," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
Again, these are not even the equivalent of preseason games. The players aren't starting from the same point as they would have been in September. They have been playing and practicing in different places, and they are in different degrees of fitness and sharpness. They had only six days of training camp before the puck dropped this weekend. No one should draw any long-term conclusions.
Still, at the same time, these games actually mean even more than normal regular-season games, simply because there are fewer of them, and this is counterintuitive, even though the Penguins match up well with the Rangers. They've won five straight against them by a 22-7 margin and eight of their last 10 at MSG.
If you had to pick the top two teams in the East, you'd probably pick the Rangers and the Penguins (with a nod to the Boston Bruins). But if you had to pick which of these two teams was best suited to start strong under these conditions, it would probably be the Rangers.
Why? Because the play will be sloppy until the NHL finds its rhythm, and the Rangers' identity is a simple, gritty, defensive game, while the Penguins are famous for their flashy skill with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company.
But the Rangers don't look like the Rangers yet – that's a big "yet" – while the Penguins are showing once again that they have depth, grit and structure as well as flashy skill.
"I think we got away a little bit from the way we were playing last year – the hard-nosed style, in your face," said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. "I think it starts with that, and it trickles from there into our systems."
The Rangers will be fine. Callahan is still setting the example, blocking shots even during a two-man disadvantage while trailing by three. Newcomer Rick Nash looks strong, driving to the net with the puck. He scored his first goal for the Rangers on Sunday night, shorthanded. If anything, this reinforces that they can't just show up and succeed after their trip to the Eastern Conference final last season. They have to keep working for it.
"How this team has played in the last couple years, it's not there yet," said Rangers center Brad Richards. "It's a responsibility to go out there and take care of those things. Right now no one else cares if people think we're better or we're supposed to win. It's going to make them play harder."
Thing is, the Penguins can play much better, too, and now they have a head start. Malkin and James Neal put up numbers on the NHL’s opening weekend – Malkin four assists, Neal three goals. Defenseman Kris Letang looks confident with the puck. Role players are contributing, like Tyler Kennedy with his two goals. What happens when Malkin really hits his stride? One experienced observer saw him sucking wind, not in an out-of-shape way, but in a back-from-the-KHL way. What happens when Crosby gets going? Letang said it would take about 10 games before this team really starts to show what it can do.
While the Rangers face a tough schedule – another game against the Bruins and two against the Flyers in their next four – the Penguins have a chance to pad their early lead. Their next four games are against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders before they come back to MSG on Jan. 31. They have a chance to pull away from the pack before the league settles down and the competition tightens.
"I've been on that side too many times when we were chasing teams, and it hardly ever works," said Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who signed to be the backup on an elite team after too many frustrating seasons elsewhere. "We're starting after a long layoff. You don't want to be in the 12th spot and saying, 'Now we've got to win four games in a row.' "
Much better to meet the challenge and get the fight out of the way early.