It’s easy — perhaps too easy — to forecast a relatively comfortable Rangers romp through their second round playoff series with the Senators, which begins Thursday in Ottawa.
But overall, the facts are more on the Blueshirts side, whether you’re talking goaltending, defense or offense.
Not to put the smack on the Senators because they are one wonderful hockey club that fooled many experts who forecast doom and gloom in Canada’s Capital.
Even the Canadian-based sport’s bible, The Hockey News, picked Ottawa to finish 7th in the Atlantic Division, well out of the playoffs.
The savants vastly underestimated the Senators then and it would be the epitome of foolhardiness to overlook their assets now; not that Alain Vigneault and his general staff ever would do such a silly thing.
New York’s high command has seen how Ottawa’s sextet has been rejuvenated from Senat-snores to a gung-ho group of winners.
It all started with a Summertime housecleaning that introduced new GM Pierre Dorion, who then hired Guy Boucher as head coach and Cup-winner Marc Crawford as sidekick.
That the franchise renovation has gone as planned was evident Sunday when the Senators knocked off the Bruins 3-2 in overtime, advancing to the second round and a challenge for the Rangers.
Here’s how the teams shape up and why New York will skate into the third round:
GOALTENDING: Henrik Lundqvist is peaking, style-wise, clutch-wise and everyway-wise. In Round One, The King out-goaled Carey Price, who some had dubbed the NHL’s best goalie — but no more. As he has done so often in the season, Hank carried the team — remember the 2-0 Game 1 win? — and can do it again, if necessary.
Ottawa’s crease counterpart, Craig Anderson, is at least a half-notch below Lundqvist, if not more. Ergo: good but not good enough. Last year Anderson often was the Senators best player. This season he displayed remarkable mental fortitude, taking leave to be with his wife who was battling cancer and then returning to ease his club into a playoff berth. Through the very trying times, Andy still managed to produce 25 wins in 40 games and then outplayed Boston’s Tuukka Rask in the opening round.
CONCLUSION: These goalies share one common trait — an intensely high battle-level. But Lundqvist’s extensive, big-game playoff experience, won-loss record and overall competence gives him the edge. Reduced to the highest common denominator, put it this way, Hank is a future Hall of Famer, Andy is not.
EDGE: Rangers, but Anderson can steal a game.
DEFENSE: Among the most exaggerated, season-long critiques of the Blueshirts centered on an alleged weakness on the blue line. The folly of these negative charges can be found in the superior play of captain Ryan McDonagh, the stunning ascent of rookie Brady Skjei and Nick Holden‘s starting as a throwaway acquisition and eventually evolving into a major asset defensively and on the attack.
While Marc Staal and Dan Girardi were less than All-Stars over the 82-game marathon, both solidly held their own against the fleet Canadiens. Meanwhile, the deadline-acquired “Extra Added Attraction,” Brendan Smith, has been an eye-opener, playing so well he’s forced vet Kevin Klein to Observer Status.
Ottawa’s answer to McDonagh is indefatigable, two-time Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson. The Sens captain is regarded as the team’s engine at both ends of the rink. Karlsson has been playing despite a pair of hairline fractures to his left heel, and pain-killers have eased his maneuverability. A chance-taker, Karlsson has blended his talents well with underrated Marc Methot. For pure physicality, veteran Dion Phaneuf remains a constant, keep-your-head-up presence.
The depth doesn’t stop there. Cody Ceci is an up-and-comer while Chris Wideman is a sustainable sixth man on the D. Overall, the combination of Karlsson’s stealth, Phaneuf’s sock and some worthies in between gives Ottawa a commendable if not impregnable fortress.
CONCLUSION: It may all come down to which bulwark — McDonagh or Karlsson — pushes his game to a higher level, or which whiz-kid, Skjei vs. Ceci proves decisive over the series.
EDGE: Draw. The assets and debits even out in the end.
OFFENSE: Alain Vigneault has the luxury of rolling four relatively well-balanced lines and did so against Montreal. From the opening win — courtesy of Tanner Glass — to Mats Zuccarello‘s two-goal virtuoso performance in Game 6, the Rangers have featured a variety of firepower.
What’s more, the ousting of Montreal was accomplished without significant contributions from regular season goal leaders such as Chris Kreider, Michael Grabner, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan and Kevin Hayes. Any or all of these worthies are due for a breakout second round; not to mention Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad, the flowering Jimmy Vesey and Mister Underrated, Jesper Fast.
Guy Boucher has an impressive, varied and abundant armory as well. Much of the evidence was there in the Boston series with Cherry Hill, New Jersey’s pride and joy, Bobby Ryan, leading the way with four goals. The artillery also features heavy shooters such as Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and the once-popular Ranger Derick Brassard.
Like New York, Ottawa has abundant depth up front. Kyle Turris is scary clever while Clarke MacArthur showed the Bruins that he’s among the feel-good stories — and scorers — of Spring. MacArthur’s overtime power play goal proved the springboard for the Senators who will open the series at home. Old-pal Brassard was the one who tied the Sunday afternoon game in Boston after the Bruins had led 1-0.
CONCLUSION: While neither team offers an offensive superstar, both the Blueshirts and Sens have an abundance of darn good shooters and playmakers. This series could be decided by a lesser light such as Pavel Buchnevich or the under-appreciated Viktor Stalberg on the Ottawa side.
EDGE: Rangers, because their arsenal is deeper.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Coaches keep saying: “SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY” and that I will do. Check out the Rangers clinching game and you’ll find that they won it with a neat recipe: mix one power play goal with two key penalty kills in the second and third periods respectively and you’ll win games.
On the Sens side, go back to Sunday afternoon and Ottawa’s power play being decisive.
EDGE: Senators, because Karlsson brings a two-front threat to every game — on power play and penalty kill.
COACHING: Both Vigneault and Boucher have a surplus of playoff experience and each has proven able to make adjustments. Vigneault’s decision to insert Buchnevich into his lineup was a series-changer. Likewise, his confidence in Holden — following a game-costing move — was another plus.
EDGE: AV gets the nod because he’s won more and for a longer period of NHL time.
A PAIR OF UNDER-THE-RADAR PLAYERS TO WATCH:
1. JIMMY VESEY: Any thought that the prize Rangers rookie would wilt in the playoffs was sadly mistaken. When more experienced teammates faded from view, the Freshman delivered galvanic and inspiring performances. Expect more of the same against Ottawa.
2. JEAN-GABRIEL PAGEAU: Not nearly as prominent in the first round as Vesey was for the Rangers, Pageau features skill and clutch-ability. During the 2013 postseason he delivered a hat trick against the Montreal Canadiens. He’s small, fast and feisty. Could be trouble.
SERIES PREDICTION: Rangers in six, because they’re a bit better than Ottawa, same as they were a bit better than Montreal.