The New York Rangers won the Atlantic Division and earned the #1 seed in the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoffs. The Ottawa Senators lost three in a row to end the year and slip to #8, even though they’ve been securely in the bracket for some time. TheSportsNotebook previews their first-round series…
If Ottawa is going to have any chance of pulling an upset—and for those who don’t follow hockey regularly, an 8-seed beating a 1-seed is less surprising in the NHL than it is for any other sport, then they have to do it with open ice and higher-scoring games. The negative to this means that the Senators play no defense. Their defenseman are very good with the puck—Erik Karlsson has 59 assists, and Flip Kubal and Sergei Gonchar are skilled with the puck as well, and the defenseman are able to feed a quality scorer like Milan Michalek. On the front line, Nick Foligno and Daniel Alfredsson all do a good job passing. In short, this is a very complete offensive team, perhaps underscored by the fact they rank better as a unit in the 5-on-5 game than they do on the power play.
What the underdogs don’t do is defend. It’s great to have your defenseman feeding puck, but winning in the playoffs in any sport is about defense, and the Senators lack thereof means the Rangers are going to get their share of opportunities at the net. A concern that seasoned NHL observers have is that forward Marian Gaborik is the only player proven he can light the lamp in the playoffs. For New York to open this series up and win it decisively, the way they are capable of, meaning Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan have to get in on the scoring and center Brad Richards needs to get his people the puck with a chance to do something.
If New York can’t produce against the weak Ottawa defense, they still have ways to win. The Rangers have the best record in the East, because they defend as a complete team. Ryan McDonagh and Don Girardi lead up a group of defenseman that observers praise for their passion and teamwork, and the statistics say their sixth-best in the NHL and preventing shots. And if a shot should get off? You only have Henrik Lundqvist, one of the top two or three goalies in the game, ready to snare it.
Neither team comes into the postseason particularly hot. Ottawa lost 11 of its last 20, including the aforementioned three-game skid. New York split its games over the same timeframe.
I know in hockey anything can happen, but the teams I like to pull upsets are ones who can turn a series into a long, grinding affair. Ottawa’s not that kind of team. There are concerns that New York may be getting tired at this point in the schedule and that perhaps the very passion they play with hasn’t been paced properly and will leave them tired. It’s a reasonable concern, given the .500 play over a good chunk of recent games, but if the worst anyone can say about the Rangers is that they play too hard, that strikes me as a very compelling reason to say their big season won’t end here.