New York Rangers: NHL Playoffs First Round Preview

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On Thursday, Madison Square Garden’s “other” tenants begin their push for what is often called the most difficult trophy in sports to win: The Stanley Cup.  The New York Rangers, winners of the Atlantic Division crown and the number one seed in the Eastern Conference will face an interesting test from their first round opponents, the Ottawa Senators.

Having watched an overwhelming majority of the Rangers 82-game regular season (it’s true, I have no life), this matchup seems like a blessing when compared to what seemed like the most likely scenario just a week ago: a rematch with the Washington Capitals, who swiftly knocked the Rangers out of the first round last season in just 5 games.  Yes, the roles were reversed – the Caps the #1 seed last year, the Rangers #8 – but the Capitals remain extremely dangerous because of the presence of Alexander Ovechkin, one of the few non-goaltenders in the modern NHL capable of dominating a series like Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky in decades past.

Instead, the Rangers face an Ottawa team that is front-loaded with skill and speed, but one that is neither very deep nor very tough. The Rangers made their mark this season playing playoff-style hockey throughout their 82-game schedule.  They paid extraordinary attention to defense, blocked a ridiculous amount of shots and relied somewhat heavily on their goaltending. When playing their best, the Rangers are also a very physical team that’s capable of scoring enough, despite what some pundits think (2.71 goals per game, good enough for 11th in the league). Their previously woeful power play has shown signs of life during the final few weeks of the season.

While it’s true that an average goaltender (like Ottawa’s Craig Anderson) getting hot can change the tenor of a series and render the seedings meaningless, it’s hard not to pick the Rangers to sweep this series based solely on the goaltending matchup.  Henrik Lundqvist is slowly but surely entering the mainstream of the New York sports lexicon (the New York Times’ 5-page profile on him from over the weekend is evidence enough) and has not hesitated to mention that he already feels like “the clock is ticking” on his chances to win a Stanley Cup.  The motivated Lundqvist put together a season that should net him the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. But he wants to accomplish much more than that.

If Lundqvist plays at a high level and the Rangers avoid major injuries, they’re expected to make a deep playoff run this spring  In terms of this first round series against Ottawa, I expect the Rangers to – pardon the cliche – pound Ottawa into submission. They’re simply a more physical team that has been through one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding regular seasons in team history. Ottawa’s top line of Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson poses a threat, but the Rangers boast arguably the best pair of shutdown defensemen in the NHL in Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who will no doubt spend most of their time opposite the Senators’ stars. In addition to the Rangers usual scoring suspects Marian Gaborik (3rd in the NHL with 41 goals) and Brad Richards (playoff MVP for the Cup-winning Lightning in 2004), look for Brandon Dubinsky to have a big spring as well.

Prediction: Rangers in 5

And now for quick predictions on the other 7 first round series in the NHL:

Eastern Conference

#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington – Capitals in 6

#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey – Devils in 5

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia – Penguins in 7

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles – Canucks in 6

#2 St. Louis vs. #7 San Jose – Blues in 7

#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago – Blackhawks in 6

#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit – Predators in 7