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There has been a lot of the pre-series talk on Rick Nash needing to score in the playoffs, stopping Sidney Crosby, and even the injuries on both sides approaching Thursday’s opening game. But not much talk has been made about which individual player the Rangers will need to step up in order to beat a depleted yet still incredibly talented Penguins side.

On talent alone, the Pens are the worst eighth seed there could be. Any team that boasts Crosby, Malkin and co. are uber-talented even without Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff, Olli Maata, and Pascal Dupuis. One position the Pens don’t have to worry about amid their injury crisis is center. To call them stacked is an understatement. Crosby is still the best in the game, while Malkin isn’t far behind even if he flits between center and wing.

Behind the two all world talents the Pens replaced a Staal with a Sutter, namely Brandon Sutter. Sutter quietly scored 21 goals this season (including the two playoff clinchers on the weekend) and wins more faceoffs than he loses. He’s a big body who can play both ends and against most teams gives the Pens an edge in depth at center. Enter Kevin Hayes.

It’s testament to a player’s development that a young man can go from being an out-of-position rookie to arguably being the in-form forward on a President Trophy winning, Stanley Cup favourite. Hayes has had a phenomenal season which has only gotten better and he’ll need to continue his hot form into the playoffs for the Rangers to ease through the early rounds.

Hayes scored 45 points in the regular season, but in his last 14 games he scored 13 points showing impressive consistency and making a mockery of the so called NCAA rookie wall. Hayes has gotten stronger all year, but it’s not just pure production. Hayes has had made others around him better (his line may have been the Rangers best these past six weeks), his decision making skills at both ends of the ice have become sharper and more instinctive, he’s displayed impressive finishing ability, and above all his patience on the puck is better than most veterans let alone rookies. Hayes will need all of this in the playoffs.

What makes Hayes so important is not only the fact he’ll see a lot of the talented Brandon Sutter and his line, but the opportunities that the injuries that have decimated the Penguins blueline present. The Penguins won’t have Letang, Maatta or Ehrhoff at all during the playoffs. That’s an incredibly tough pill to swallow. Could the Rangers cope without McDonagh, Staal and Girardi at the same time? We have our doubts. So in theory, Kevin Hayes and his line could see a lot of opportunities to make an impact.

Hayes needs to take advantage of this sudden lack of depth on the Pens blueline and it helps that his line has shown excellent chemistry for weeks. The Rangers third line right now can confidently go up against any other in the league. That wasn’t always the case.  As was the case toward the end of the regular season, Rick Nash and his line can expect to be closely followed but the Rangers have a big advantage in terms of depth over the Pens (thanks to injuries as well as actual talent levels)  thanks in large part to Kevin Hayes’ development.

The Pens are a solid if not impressive tenth in the league in goals against with 2.49/game. Over the past ten games however and that figure bloats to 3.2 goals against even though they finished with a shutout victory against the ECHL worthy Buffalo Sabres while their past ten games also included Arizona, Carolina and a struggling Sharks team.

The Pens are struggling defensively; they limped into the playoffs and now they lack any kind of defensive depth. The Rangers have the perfect answer to the Pens’ lack of depth and that’s a scorching hot third line led by an impressive rookie in Kevin Hayes. The Pens may match the Rangers goal for goal amongst the top six, they may even out produce the Rangers top two lines, but Kevin Hayes could be, may even need to be, the difference for the Rangers. Not bad for a rookie on a Stanley Cup contender.

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