Well, the day has finally arrived. Tonight, the puck will drop at MSG for the first round of the 2012 NHL playoffs. The Rangers have the top seed, and drew the Ottawa Senators in the first round. This is a tough matchup for the Rangers, as they went 1-2-1 (essentially 1-3) against the Senators during the regular season. The Rangers were awarded the Senators after Ottawa lost their last three games of the year. The Rangers don’t have much of an advantage there, as they have lost their last two games.
The playoffs are about more than recent streaks and regular season records, so let’s see how these two teams match up against each other.
The Senators boast a very talented top line. Milan Michalek-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson is one of the most dangerous top lines in hockey, scoring a total of 96 goals and 203 points between the trio. Those 96 goals represent 38.5% of Ottawa’s 249 goals (tied for 4th in the NHL) during the regular season. But perhaps their biggest weapon offensively is Erik Karlsson, who led all NHL defensemen with 78 points (19-59-78). Karlsson does it all for the Senators, and is the catalyst of this dangerous offense. When it comes to depth, the Senators have just one additional player (Nick Foglino) who cracked 40 points this year. Suit broke down the Senators aggressive hybrid trap and how they use this to generate chances off turnovers. So if you missed it, go read up before the puck drops.
The Rangers are extremely similar to the Senators when it comes to offense. They boast a dangerous duo in Marian Gaborik (41-35-76) –the only 40 goal scorer in this series– and Brad Richards (25-41-66), their two leading scorers. Rookie Carl Hagelin completes that top line, where his pro-rated point total would have topped 40. The Rangers, like the Senators, have just four players who topped 50 points and one additional player that topped 40 (Hagelin not included).
The difference here is that the Senators have Karlsson, while the Rangers best offensive threat from the blue line is Michael Del Zotto (10-31-41).
Whatever advantage Ottawa had in offense is completely wiped out on defense.The Senators finished 24th in the league in goals allowed with a miserable 240 goals scored against during the regular season. Their +9 goal differential is last of any playoff team not coming from the Southeast division. In fact, their defense is so bad at, you know, playing defense, that Filip Kuba is actually their DGVT leader with a 5.1 DGVT. The Senators win games with offense, and it shows. Suit also broke down the Senators defensive zone strategy, so go read that too.
The Rangers on the other hand allowed a paltry 187 goals (2.28 GA/G) this season, good for 3rd in the league. Their +39 goal differential puts them at 6th in the league. This has a lot to do with Henrik Lundqvist (more below), but something needs to be said for a defensive core that dressed a whopping 11 different defensemen this season. To put DGVT into perspective, Ryan McDonagh (9.0) and Dan Girardi (7.9) combined (16.9) have better DGVT’s than the entire Ottawa Senators defense. And that doesn’t include Marc Staal, who appears to be healthy enough to play 25 minutes a game.
However, what the Rangers have in common with the Senators on defense is lack of depth. The Rangers top four are light years ahead of the Senators top four defensively, but both teams have bottom pairings that can be exploited.
The Senators will be counting on Craig Anderson to keep the Rangers at bay. Anderson finished the season with an injured hand, but looks like he will be back for the playoffs. Although he has an unattractive 2.83 GAA, Anderson’s .914 SV% illustrates that he is often hung out to dry by the putrid Senators defense. If Anderson falter, rookie Ben Bishop will get the nod in net. Justin previewed both goaltenders styles, strengths, and weaknesses, so make sure to check those out.
As for the Rangers, they will be relying on the best goalie in the world. Lundqvist is coming off a season where he will be a Vezina finalist. If he falters, then it’s Martin Biron. Justin previewed them both earlier in the year, make sure to check those out as well.
As expected, the Senators have a pretty potent powerplay. Finishing 11th in the league with an 18.2% conversion rate, the usual suspects are the ones scoring all their powerplay goals: Spezza (10 PPG), Michalek (10 PPG), and Alfredsson (7 PPG). But those guy’s wouldn’t be sniffing their goal totals if it weren’t for Karlsson, who has an amazing 25 PPA’s this season. Combine that with his three PPGs, and Karlsson’s team leading 28 PPP is the powerplay weapon the Rangers need to fear.
What else needs to be said about the Rangers powerplay? At least it didn’t finish in last place this season, but they almost did. Their 15.2% conversion rate was good enough to keep them at 23rd in the league. Often caught standing still, the Rangers powerplay is at it’s best when they are moving around and working the half-boards. Unfortunately, that is few and far between. Only Gaborik and Richards topped 20 PPP this season, but Ryan Callahan has been something of a revelation in front of the net, with 13 PPG’s this year, the most in the series.
Much like the disparity in the Senators offensive and defensive prowess, the Senators lose any advantage they could have had in special teams with their penalty kill. It’s not a terrible kill (20th – 80.1%), but it’s the worst among playoff teams in the Eastern Conference not from the Southeast Division (sensing a trend yet?). The Rangers powerplay may not be the most successful in the league, but they will have opportunities to convert against this penalty killing unit. However you can’t sleep on the Senators, who have nine shorthanded tallies this season, including three by Alfredsson.
The Rangers penalty kill is again a strength, much like their defense. Fifth in the league with an 86.2% success rate, the Rangers rely on good positioning and shot blocking (and good goaltending) to get the job done. The Rangers are also dangerous on the kill, with eight shorties this season. The speedy combo of Hagelin and Brandon Prust are the leaders with two a piece.
Paul MacLean has done a wonderful job in Ottawa. The Senators went from lottery pick last season to playoff team this season. The team has bought into MacLean’s balanced system, and has become an excellent transition team. They are a team that have some similarities to the Rangers, which is why the Rangers appear to have so much trouble with them. This team is very well coached.
After 24/7, it became very obvious that the Rangers would run through a wall for their coach. John Tortorella has the entire team believing they can win, and they do so game in and game out by playing at a level that goes unmatched by most of the NHL. Tortorella has altered his “safe is death” mentality and now promotes a more balanced attack. The Rangers are at their best when they are relentlessly forechecking and defending the slot, which the Rangers executed very well this season.
The Senators have highly touted rookie Mika Zibanejad (2011 – 6th overall) skating on the top six in practice, which is a weapon they didn’t have for the majority of the season. The nine games Zibanejad played were before the rookie was sent back to the SEL to finish the season, and he did not face the Rangers. With another year of seasoning under his belt, Zibanejad could surprise many.
Update: When it comes to leadership, it’s hard to find a better captain than Daniel Alfredsson. He’s been the captain of that team since, well, forever, and the team stands by him. He, Jason Spezza, and Chris Neil are three of the main guys that a young Senators team look up to. It helps that Spezza and Alfredsson have been on the same line since the lockout too, so they know each other very well. But when it comes to Cup winners, Ottawa falls short, with just one Cup winner on the roster in Sergei Gonchar.
The Rangers have their own highly touted prospect who just signed in Chris Kreider. Fans have anticipated his arrival since last season, and it is clear that the Rangers intend to use him at some point during the playoffs, as they are burning a year of his ELC. We won’t know if Kreider will play in this round, but an injury makes that decision easier.
Update: Where the Rangers might have an edge over the Senators is their leadership and –believe it or not– experience. The Rangers boast three Cup winners in Brad Richards, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Mike Rupp, and several players that have been to the dance before. While the majority of the core has never been past the first round, they have enough veterans around them to guide them through the rough road ahead. It helps to have a balls-to-the-wall captain in Ryan Callahan. He’s the lead by example captain on a team that gives it everything they have on every shift. This is a team that will outhustle their opponents on a consistent basis.
Advantage: Even, maybe the Rangers have a slight advantage.
Rangers in five.