The Rangers’ upcoming second-round playoff series against Ottawa, which starts Thursday, carries motivational and emotional side stories galore.
Frankly, the best of those stories are on Ottawa’s side of the series.
[RANGERS POST GAME COVERAGE ON MSG]
The Rangers? Well, except for Mika Zibanejad playing his former team, and Mats Zuccarello going up against his best bud and former sidekick Derick Brassard, their story is yet to be written. Theirs is the story of a team whose core has had about as much playoff success as a franchise can have without winning a Stanley Cup.
Their story is about making another deep run, and another shot at a Cup – playing in their 15th playoff series since 2012. By the way, the start of that run for this core was a seven-game first-round series win over Ottawa.
The Senators? Well, they just won their first playoff series since going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. That’s not their story.
Their story starts with Craig Anderson, the goalie who isn’t normally associated with the best at his position, but who often performs on an elite level. Anderson missed more than two months of this season to be at the side of his wife, Nicholle, as she fought a rare form of head and neck cancer. You may have seen the video of Anderson and Nicholle hugging after the Senators eliminated Boston Sunday, and if you have, you probably had some goosebumps and something in your eye.
Anderson will probably win the Masterton Trophy for perseverance – he was named a finalist on Monday.
The Senators have another one in Clarke MacArthur, a veteran forward who sat out almost two full seasons with concussion issues – he suffered four of them, including two in collisions with teammates. Well, he returned to the Senators just before the playoffs and is an inspirational figure for as far as they will go.
Anderson’s story, at least as far as the Rangers are concerned, is secondary to his goaltending right now.
We’ve seen that it hardly matters what a goalie’s regular-season history is when it comes to playoffs. The Rangers, for example, did well vs. Tampa’s Ben Bishop in the playoffs after he dominated them in the regular-season (Bishop, it happens, was Anderson’s backup in the 2012 series) and Montreal’s Carey Price absolutely owned the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist in regular-season meetings. The Rangers just eliminated Price and the Habs in Game 6 on Saturday.
So for what it’s worth, Anderson – hardly on the elite level of Price — has had sparkling success against the Rangers during the regular season: 10-5-3, 1.74 GAA, .944 SV%, four shutouts. Even in that seven-game loss in 2012, Anderson’s numbers were 2.00 GAA, 933 SV%, one shutout. Lundqvist was just a bit better.
Big Game Brassard had been one of their better postseason performers until last spring and until the trade for Zibanejad, who played parts of five seasons in Ottawa.
Brassard mostly plays 60 feet of the ice, his game significantly weaker in the neutral and defensive zones. But, he’ll be pumped to play the full 200 in this series. His history is when he’s up for a series, he can do a lot of damage in those 60 feet (eight points vs. Boston). Brassard loved it in New York and even though he was traded to his hometown, he will be extremely motivated and therefore dangerous.
The most skilled player in the series is Ottawa captain and defenseman, Erik Karlsson, who can do anything now. Back in 2012, he was a kid who was roughed up, played a bit tentative, coughed up pucks and didn’t defend much. He’s a completely different player now.
Karlsson is simply one of the most unique talents in the game and still just 26 years old. An ever-growing leader, Karlsson is the most completely gifted defensemen in the league. He, for some reason, announced that he played the Boston series with two microfractures in his heel and though he looked spent at times during the overtimes, he played a fabulous series. Karlsson indicated that the foot is almost healed.
Then there’s Guy Boucher, the Ottawa coach who promises to make things difficult on the Rangers, especially if they insist on making things difficult on themselves.
Ottawa, despite its record – the Senators were 44-28-10 and the only playoff team to allow more goals (2) than it scored during the season — is a more difficult opponent for the Rangers than Montreal, in my opinion.
The Senators play Boucher’s boring, stifling trap, and the Rangers have had all sorts of trouble with trapping teams. See last season, last spring’s five-game playoff loss to Pittsburgh, and this past regular season.
Why? Because the Rangers are a team designed to create chances off the rush and use their speed through the neutral zone. And because when the neutral zone is clogged or taken away or closed, the Rangers tend to get stubborn. Actually, they tend to get rush-happy and stubborn against non-trapping teams at times too.
So this will test their resolve. When there’s nothing there, will Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan, et al, make the smart play and get the puck behind Ottawa’s defensemen, make them turn, and spend time in the Senators zone?
If they do, they can succeed. If they don’t, they will be spending time in their own zone, defending, scrambling, having long shifts and creating nothing offensively. It seems a simple task – and some, like Rick Nash, get it – but it is the main reason the Rangers were hemmed in their end for the third period and OT of their Game 2 loss in Montreal, and for the entirety of their Game 3 loss at home, and for the first period of Game 6.
In fact, it is the main reason – again, in my eyes – the Rangers struggled at home this season, where they are more guilty of trying to make fancy plays than going straight ahead, hard and simple, which they did in becoming the NHL’s best road team.
If they take what’s there and get pucks deep when there’s nothing there, the Rangers can dictate this series and perhaps force the Senators to back off in the neutral zone or even, at times, abandon the trap.
Ottawa’s forwards are arguably faster and deeper than the Canadiens’ forwards, but not as deep and fast as the Rangers’. Still, in Brassard, MacArthur New Jersey native Bobby Ryan (who had a dreadful season, but scored four goals against Boston), Kyle Turris, Zack Smith, Mike Hoffman and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, it’s a formidable group.
Like the Canadiens, Ottawa beefed up a bit for its playoff run, adding the annoying Alex Burrows, ex-Ranger Viktor Stalberg and former Sharks tough guy Tommy Wingels. Those moves kind of showed the door to the Senators alternate captain and long-time Rangers agitator Chris Neil, who, now nearing 38 years of age, played just 53 regular-season games (mostly due to a finger injury) and none in the Boston series.
The Rangers handled Montreal’s attempts at “pile-driving” and thrived on hitting back, so I don’t think Boucher’s group will take that tactic. That’s not to suggest it won’t be a physical series. It most certainly will be.
As we just saw in Montreal’s Shea Weber, defenseman Dion Phaneuf is a big (but not as big) hitter and hard shooter (not nearly as hard) who, like Weber was, can be exposed at times by the Rangers’ speed and skill. Ottawa’s defense, I believe, is also thin after the top pair, though Marc Methot and Cody Ceci have played well against the Rangers.
Zibanejad, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 5, should surely be up for this series against his former teammates.
The other Rangers have their own motivation, especially those who’ve been around a while and who have been part of a team that was among the best in the whole league year after year, but not quite the best team in the league in any year. Six Rangers remain from the 2012 series – Lundqvist, captain Ryan McDonagh, alternate captains Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Stepan, Chris Kreider (who made his NHL debut in an emergency in Game 3 and scored a game-winning goal in Game 6 to avoid elimination). Zuccarello was on the team, but didn’t play due to a wrist injury.
The Rangers got by Montreal without a lot of production from some of their top-nine forwards and will need much more from Kreider and from Stepan, Zibanejad, Miller and Hayes. And yes, even out of Zuccarello, who had a goal and no assists (and some undisciplined penalties) through the first five games.
Special teams can often be, but are not always, a deciding factor. The Rangers’ penalty kill clamped down late in the Montreal series after a terrible closing stretch during the season and their power play finally clicked on a Zuccarello Game 6 goal after being 0-for-14 in the series.
The Senators, despite having Karlsson and some big-shooting forwards, were only 23rd in the league on the power play during the season but scored five power-play goals against Boston, including MacArthur’s series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, who lives in Gatineau, just outside of Ottawa, hit every note in his decisions and adjustments during the Montreal series. He began his NHL coaching career as an assistant in Ottawa. So there’s another storyline.
Something to watch: The Senators had a difficult time in second periods (allowing eight goals) against Boston. The Rangers gave up one goal in the second period against Montreal.
I thought that the Rangers had a lot of questions to answer before the Montreal series and they did answer in the affirmative in almost every area. This won’t be easy. In fact, I believe the Senators will be a more difficult out than the Canadiens.
The Rangers need to make the most of the opportunity given to them by a terribly flawed playoff system, which has allowed them to avoid Pittsburgh and Washington. As was the case last round, the Rangers’ success or failure will be determined by what they do, how they execute, more than on anything their opponent does.
Rangers in 6.