By Brian Monzo
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The Rangers earned their way to the first seed in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
It's borderline amazing. Two years ago they missed the playoffs when Olli Jokinen couldn't convert a shootout opportunity. Last season in the quarterfinals, they blew a 3-0 lead to the Caps in the third period of Game 4, and from there were all but eliminated.
As Pierre McGuire stated twice now on WFAN, the Rangers have character. When the Blueshirts face-off against the Senators tomorrow night against the Senators at MSG, their character is going to need to be very visible. With the Garden rocking, I would expect nothing less.
The Rangers finished with 10 more wins than the Senators. They are clearly the better team, but in the NHL, an eighth seed eliminating a No. 1 is not of the question. For the Rangers, it would be an epic disaster to lose this series. After a great run in the regular season, it would be realistic for the team to get to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Senators are a high-powered offensive machine with a dominant top line and a premier offensive defenseman. Their top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek has been one of the best lines in hockey. The Rangers are going to be sending out the defensive pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh every time that unit is on the ice. Erik Karlsson leads all defensemen by a mile in points scored. His 19 goals and 59 assists are staggering numbers for a defenseman in this era of the NHL. If the Rangers can control him at even strength, and more importantly, on the power play, their job will be cut in half.
The Senators are not that deep in forwards past that unit. Kyle Turris has turned into a nice player and Colin Greening has been effective. Nick Foligno, and his 47 points, would be next on their depth chart. Not that scary. Sergei Gonchar is on their blue line, but he is not the player he was at one time in his career.
In goal, they send out Craig Anderson. Anderson had a nice run a few years back with the Avalanche, but aside from that has not had playoff experience. He was hurt throughout the season and was sharp down the stretch. He is effective, but not someone that can backstop someone to a championship.
The Rangers' toughest challenge will be containing the Senators' top line. If the Blueshirts can find a way to score goals, they should have no problem winning.
The Rangers find themselves in a weird spot. They are no longer underdogs. Going into this series they will be expected to win. I'm not sure I remember a time where I could say that (and mean it). As we've said all year, New York simply needs to keep doing more of the same.
They've developed a top line of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and rookie Carl Hagelin. Gaborik scored 41 goals, and Richards turned his season around in early March. They may have a new addition to potentially their second line, as they just signed 2009 first-round pick Chris Kreider. The offensively-gifted prospect is eligible to play in the playoffs if John Tortorella elects to put him on the ice.
Kreider, perhaps the Rangers' most hyped offensive prospect in over a decade, will have a chance to make a huge splash in the NHL right away. In three years playing at Boston College, he was part of two NCAA Championship teams, and was part of the 2009 World Junior Championship team for the United States that came home with a gold medal.
Captain Ryan Callahan will also be a factor in the playoffs. He missed the postseason last year, recovering from a broken bone in his ankle from blocking a Zdeno Chara slap shot. His ability to block shots, score clutch goals and be a leader will be a huge asset this time around.
Center Derek Stepan is coming off a 50-point season and is expected to be part of the Rangers' second line. Maybe the biggest part of the Rangers going into this series is Brandon Dubinsky. The former 20-plus goal scorer recorded only 10 this season. His game improved as the season went out, and if he can find the back of the net, he will provide much needed secondary goal scoring.
Grinding forwards Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle will be just as important as Richards and Gaborik throughout the playoffs. Their role of blocking shots, forechecking and banging in the occasional goal is something a lot of teams crave this time of the season. They are two character players, and will be expected to do what they do every shift.
Defensively, aside from Girardi and McDonagh, big minutes will be eaten by Marc Staal. Staal missed the first half of the season with a concussion. It's been a battle for Staal and this would be an ideal time for him to find his complete game. Michael Del Zotto put up career highs in goals and assists and will be a huge part of the power play.
Finally, Henrik Lundqvist. The King finished the season with a career high 39 wins, and earned himself an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the NHL Playoff Preview edition. It's no secret that Lundqvist has struggled a tad bit in the playoffs. Whether it be exhaustion, or pressure -- who cares? He was given plenty of rest this season and needs to earn his spot as the NHL's best goaltender. There's a ton of pressure on Hank to get it done, and with the team he has in front of him, this is his chance.
The Rangers are built for a seven-game series. They do all the small things right. They've done it for the better part of the last months. That said, as I've said on Twitter, the one team I thought would give them a hard time would be the Senators. Ottawa won the season series 3-1. They play the type of hockey that gives the Rangers trouble. They are fast, and can strike at any time. However, I expect these off-days to give the Rangers a chance to prepare for whatever arsenal the Senators bring.
It won't be easy, but I expect the Rangers to win this in five games.
Follow me on Twitter throughout the playoffs for updates, thoughts and more: BMonzoWFAN
(Oh yeah, the playoff beard has been started. I shaved on Sunday and will not shave again until the Rangers are eliminated. I hope to look like Brian Wilson when it's all said and done.)
What's your prediction for Rangers-Senators? Be heard in the comments below...
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