Monday, April 9, 2012

Playoff Preview: Rangers vs Senators

Ranger captain Ryan Callahan will be seeing a lot of Erik Karlsson and the Senators in the first round series which starts Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

Entering this season, the Rangers had higher expectations. Though nobody would've envisioned our team leading the East from late December on to finish with the top record, they overcame injuries and underachievers to finish with 109 points. Their most since '93-94 when some curse was lifted. Ironically, at least part of the path could be similar if they run into the Devils in the second round. Otherwise, despite the top seed, it likely runs through the Bruins and Pens, who we had issues with.

PRESSURE: There will no doubt be increased pressure on John Tortorella and Henrik Lundqvist to deliver the club's first series win since '08 over New Jersey. If last year, nobody was more scrutinized than Roberto Luongo, then the same holds true for Lundqvist, who established new career marks in wins (39), goals-against-average (1.97) and save percentage (.930). This is his seventh year (sixth postseason). At 30, King Henrik needs to have a big playoffs for this team to succeed. He'll be vying for his first Vezina but most importantly, will try to shed the label as a postseason disappointment. Albeit the teams he had before wasn't as strong. Lundqvist slumped down the stretch and will need to reestablish himself quickly against a dangerous opponent in Ottawa that had success against us, winning three of four during the season series.

FORWARDS: The Blueshirts were led by Marian Gaborik, who bounced back with 41 goals and 76 points to pace our team. Gabby showed a penchant for getting the uniform dirty and scored more on the road. He also was clutch putting our team ahead a lot. He'll team with Brad Richards (25-41-66), who finished strong after struggling to find chemistry. Richie was brought in for this situation with the former Conn Smythe winner having valuable experience. He'll get support from heart and soul captain Ryan Callahan (career high 29 goals, 13 PPG), who leads by example. He hates losing just as much as Lundqvist and has taken the mantle. Much of the team's aspirations depends on pups Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin with both key components. They didn't finish strong but must pick it up. A positive is the play of Brian Boyle, who rediscovered his scoring touch and also takes big draws while providing energy on the penalty kill. He'll work with Brandon Dubinsky and Ruslan Fedotenko while Tortorella will start with a crash fourth line of Mike Rupp, John Mitchell and Brandon Prust. How Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Stepan perform could be the key. If Chris Kreider gets signed, he could see limited duty.

The Senators boast an explosive unit that's led by Jason Spezza (34 goals, 84 points). He is the best forward in the series and also has the top defenseman in Erik Karlsson, whose whopping 78 points (19-59-78) make Ottawa extremely potent. It's not just Spezza up front with Milan Michalek (career best 35 markers) finishing around the net and vet Daniel Alfredsson always a threat. Kyle Turris played well for the Sens after being acquired from Phoenix and lit the lamp twice in our last meeting. He'll have the pressure of helping support the top line, which is sure to get plenty of attention from our D. How Turris and young guns Colin Greening, Zach Smith and Erik Condra play could determine the outcome. Toss in agitator Nick Foligno and pest Chris Neil and Ottawa shouldn't be any picnic. Whichever team provides more secondary scoring should prevail.

Edge: Even

DEFENSE: Few D tandems were better at limiting opposing scoring lines than Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. There's nothing they won't do to help the Blueshirts win. If it means blocking shots, both will sacrifice the body. Each can take the body if needed but are solid positionally. Particularly McDonagh, whose anticipation is off the charts for a second-year player. Will he slow down in the playoffs? Tortorella has the luxury of using Marc Staal with Anton Stralman on the third pair while Mike Del Zotto works with feisty Stu Bickel, who brings edge. Del Zotto paced our blueline with 41 points (10-31-41). He still doesn't shoot enough but is great at finding the open man backdoor. He must pick his spots in this series due to the Sens' countering style. It should be noted that McDonagh had 32 points and Girardi contributed 29. So, we're not just a one trick pony. But defense is the focus as they'll try to slow down the Sens, turning it into a physical match up.

Ottawa is led by Karlsson, who can do it all. Possessing a potent shot, unbelievable playmaking skills and great skating, he is the Sens' most important player because he's a game changer. Despite 19 goals, he only scored three on the power play. The Ranger focus will be on limiting time and space. Knowing where he is at all times along with Spezza, particularly on the man-advantage is a must. Karlsson can rely on vet Sergei Gonchar who returned healthy playing in 74 games while tallying 37 points (32 helpers). He's been around forever. So, the Rangers will try to be physical with him. Filip Kuba is another experienced D you have to account for as Ottawa boasts three blueliners with 30-or-more points. But Kuba and Gonchar's roles are mostly as set up men. Rookie Jared Cowan played all 82 and ex-Ranger Matt Gilroy will be looking for redemption. Our team must not allow the Sens back end to control the tempo. Pressuring the points is important.

Slight Edge: Rangers

GOALIES: As noted above, the Rangers will go as Henrik Lundqvist does. If on, our team arguably has the best goalie on the planet to backstop us through the tournament. That he's never been past the second round leaves a little doubt. The regular season and postseason are two different animals. Hank knows what's at stake. He'll have to be really good against the high flying Sens.

If there's a wildcard in the series, it's Craig Anderson. He's capable of stealing games and did so against us. Toss out the stats (2.84 GAA, .914 Save Pct.). He still won 33 games and recently returned from injury. The thing with him is that like most goalies, the more rubber he sees, the better he seems to play. So, getting traffic in front will be essential. Anderson can make the saves. It's about the quality. The Rangers must not get frustrated if they don't finish early on.

Edge: Rangers

SPECIAL TEAMS: In any series, how your power play and penalty killing unit perform can make or break you. The Bruins proved you could win without it. Our team isn't good enough for that even if they've attempted to drive our fanbase batty. Yes, the power play looked better at season's conclusion. Believe it or not, Callahan's 13 PPG are three better than Spezza and Michalek. Gaborik also notched 10 and Richards finished with seven. However, he and Stepan are the table setters with our unit largely dependent on Captain Cally and Gabby. Tortorella mixed it up late using Boyle with some success and Anisimov's game breaking speed provided some highlights.

For the Sens, it's simple. Contain Karlsson and Spezza and you have a great chance of nullifying their man-advantage. Michalek is skilled in front. Gonchar won't shoot a ton and neither will Gilroy. Alfredsson is always a threat and will enjoy going up against Swedish buddy Lundqvist. He loves to go high. Neil could see time as he has been known to make life difficult on Henrik.

Ottawa ranked 11th best at a 18.2 clip due to their skill as compared to our at times scary unit that finished 23rd (15.7). Of note, the Senators performed better on the road ranking 12th (18.9) while our team was 22nd at MSG (15.8). Ottawa placed 15th at home (17.4) while the Blueshirts were 19th best away (15.7). If there is one area to exploit, the Sens allowed seven shorthanded goals compared to our four. Our PK was fifth (86.2) and scored eighth SHG led by Hagelin and Prust, who shared the lead with two. Ottawa's PK finished 20th (81.6) but also was dangerous shorthanded as evidenced by nine shorties with Alfredsson's three pacing them.

Edge: Senators

COACHES: John Tortorella hasn't been past the first round in a while. There was the Cap debacle in '09 where he got suspended for getting into it with a fan. Our team then missed on the last day the following year. Last year, the Caps ousted us again in five. One noticeable difference in Tort is that he's stayed more grounded, opting not to kill the team when they have struggled. Despite an ugly finish Saturday, he accentuated the positives, indicating that our team can beat anyone. It's been proven. How he handles the bench is big. If someone's not going, he'll change it up. Just don't panic.

Paul MacLean has done a great job in Year One for Ottawa. Nobody had the Sens touching the postseason but he turned it around in one year. Why he doesn't receive more accolades for the Jack Adams is a mystery. It really should come down to him versus Kevin Dineen if we're being fair because Ken Hitchcock took over a more experienced team. MacLean's frantic pace has paid dividends with his best players buying in. They are a fun club to watch. It'll be a contrast of styles. We'll give Tortorella the edge due to experience which includes a Cup.

Edge: Rangers

INTANGIBLES: This should favor the Rangers, who boast enough players who are sick of losing early. Lundqvist, Callahan, Girardi, Staal, Boyle, Anisimov and Dubinsky should be hungry. Add Richards and there's plenty of incentive. The Sens have some experience too in Alfredsson, Spezza, Gonchar, Neil, Kuba and Anderson. But this is an area that should be to our advantage if it's tight.

Edge: Rangers

Prediction: Of potential opponents, this is the one I didn't want to face. However, the Rangers have to beat someone. All year, they proved they were good enough to finish atop the East in a loaded division. No small feat. Now, they'll have the target on their back as they try to continue the team mantra of Playing The Right Way. Anything less than victory would be a colossal disappointment.


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