Rangers-Senators NHL Playoff Preview
Well...it's about that time. Time to take out your fake teeth, ready the playoff beard- or gross pencil-esque mustache if you prefer- and grow out that sweet, sweet mullet. The Rangers' run for Lord Stanley's Cup will open Thursday night against the Ottawa Senators. We offer you these preview thoughts. @JoeBianchino
Before the season, Ranger defenseman Dan Girardi told us that his squad thought they were capable of earning a top four seed in the Eastern Conference, and that they were "tired" of spending the final games of the season fighting for a playoff spot. Well, he undersold that one, didn't he? The Rangers' combination of impeccable goaltending, young-yet-talented defense, and improved goal scoring saw the Blue Shirts climb to the top of the Eastern Conference. Their efforts have earned them a matchup with the eight seeded Ottawa Senators.
Ottawa took three of four from the Rangers this season, one of the few teams in the league to have gotten the better of the Blue shirts. The Senators are, however, sitting in eighth for a reason. While their top line of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek is a dangerous one, the Senators don't have much in the way of depth. In fact, they really have nothing in the way of depth. Nearly 40 percent of the Senators' goals in 2011-2012 came from those three - the only three Senators to crest twenty goals. In addition to that absurd chasm of production, the Senators ranked only 24th in the league in goals against.
So how, exactly, did the East's top team manage to drop three of four to that? God only knows. But to advance in the playoffs, the Rangers will have to avoid four additional losses. How do they do it? Well...just keep reading.
KEY MATCHUP - Ranger Defense vs. Ottawa's Top Line: Seriously. Three guys. 40% of their goals. The Senator top line has to be priority one for the Rangers. If they are shut down, what more does Ottawa have? Not much. Expect Girardi to draw the matchup; he'll see playing time every time Spezza, Alfredsson and Michalek look like they're thinking about stepping onto the ice. If he and whomever he's partnered with - don't be surprised if he ends up reuniting with Marc Staal - can control those three, then the Rangers could breeze through this series.
RANGER LIKELY TO HAVE A BIG SERIES - Brad Richards/Marion Gaborik: In just four games against the Senators, these two managed an impressive nine points. They abused the underwhelming Ottawa defense and look to do it again - having added Carl Hagelin to their line and found another gear in the season's latter half. Given the combination of skills displayed on that line, expect Ranger fans to no longer loudly and ever so sadly bemoan the lack of goal scoring. Look for big things from these two.
RANGER WHO NEEDS TO HAVE A BIG SERIES - Derek Stepan: BOOM! Outside the box. Yes, there are better choices. Lundqvist, Girardi, etc. But those are too obvious...and too hard to chose from. Instead, I'm looking to 21 year old Derek Stepan - whose talent had him starting the season on the Rangers' top line. If the Senators' biggest flaw is their lack of depth, the Rangers should make damn sure that it's not a flaw of theirs. Stepan can be a great goal scorer when he's on his game, he'll need to be to keep the Rangers' offense from getting one dimensional.
RANGER TO WATCH - Ryan Callahan: The captain is always a player to watch, but expect his game to be that kind of extra special 'Holy crap did he just do that?!' type of play starting Thursday. Callahan missed the playoffs last season thanks to a broken ankle he suffered diving in front of the Mach 2 slap shot of nine foot tall monster Zdeno Chara (some of my stats may be exaggerated). It's that type of all or nothing, lead by example effort that has often seen Callahan raise his game to unexpected levels in clutch spots. Expect big things from the less than big man.
PREDICTION: There are arguments to be made either way here, but ultimately, I refuse to accept that this Ranger team will disappoint. There's a great line in the movie Seabiscuit, in which Toby McGuire explains that his horse's greatness has less to do with any innate ability, and more to do with its will to win. "It's not in his feet," he says. Well, corny as it sounds - and it sounds damn corny - I draw a parallel here with the Rangers. It's not in their feet. Even if they weren't the better team on paper - which they are - I'd still expect this squad to will their way to victory. Ottawa will challenge them, but I see the Rangers getting it done. Rangers in 6.