Tonight at 6:00 on NHL Network, the top team in the Eastern Conference launches their playoff run as the New York Rangers host the #8 seed Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden. Follow after the jump for a look at the two teams...
New York Rangers
The Rangers rode a workmanlike team mindset and great goaltending to the #1 seed in the East this season, just one point ahead of Pittsburgh. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the favorites for the Vezina Trophy, but in addition to some star-level top line talent (Brad Richard, Marian Gaborik) the bulk of the roster is characterized by guys who have bought in to John Tortorella's style of play. The guy who perhaps best exemplifies that mindset is team captain Ryan Callahan, who put up career-best offensive numbers this season:
#24 / Right Wing / New York Rangers
Mar 21, 1985
|2011 - Ryan Callahan||76||29||25||54||-8||61||13||1||9||235||12.3|
What's up with his picture, though? That deserves a photo caption contest all its own...
Perhaps the most interesting member of this Rangers team just joined them - college star Chris Krieder signed with New York after winning the NCAA championship with Boston College, and is on their playoff roster. Will he hit the ice or make an impact? That's awfully hard to imagine, but who knows.
What I do know is, Joe over at Blueshirt Banter is about ready to blow up with anticipation:
This isn't just the playoffs, this is the playoffs in New York.
This is the Garden being packed to capacity well before the game even starts. It's "let's go Rangers" chants loud enough to blow the doors off the house 45 minutes before the game even starts. The crowd revving up like a 747 getting ready to take off when the players take the ice. It's the crowd cheering so loud during the end of the National Anthem that you have no idea when it ends. It's the emotions after every big fight, the explosion after every goal, the joy after every win. It's the fear of a loss, it's your heart skipping a beat when the other team hits the post. It's you realizing that 18,200 people are standing as one to praise Henrik Lundqvist after every big save. It's giving a standing ovation for every penalty kill. It's the roar of every scoring chance. It's going home after a huge playoff win and having to blast the car radio to hear music since it was so loud at the Garden you are hard of hearing. It's suffering through every moment of an overtime. It's the soul-crushing feeling when they lose. The best feeling in the world when they win. It's the final seconds before a win, when the place is going nuts, everyone is standing and all the towels are spinning. It's the overwhelming feeling that every jersey in the rafters is looking down on you. The understanding that every moment in New York is special, that it's simply bigger in Madison Square Garden.
It's New York Rangers playoff hockey, there is simply nothing like it. Anywhere. Period.
The Senators have been the feel-good hit of the NHL season, as they were expected to launch into a long and grizzly rebuild operation, but instead found their legs quickly under new head coach Paul MacLean and made it back to the playoffs.
While Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson are drawing all the attention for their offensive heroics, a big part of Ottawa's push has come from their resurgent captain, who was expected to continue declining into the twilight of his career:
#11 / Right Wing / Ottawa Senators
Dec 11, 1972
|2011 - Daniel Alfredsson||75||27||32||59||+16||18||7||3||4||191||14.1|
Spezza's point-per-game campaign had some talking about him as a Hart Trophy nominee, and while we can't go that far, it certainly sounds like he's becoming more of a complete player over time, argues Amelia over at Silver Seven:
Spezza's defensive game was blasted by Jacques Martin as a rookie and frustrated successive coaches. But over the past few years, Spezza's game has evolved. His faceoff skills improved, he started killing penalties, and he found himself on the ice during the last seconds of tight games. A more mature Spezza was developing a two-way game. Many pointed out the comparison to Steve Yzerman, who had to adapt from a purely offensive threat early in his career, to a strong two-way player before Detroit enjoyed the success of three Stanley Cup victories under his captaincy. But is Spezza at Stevie Y's level?
If anyone should know about Spezza/Yzerman comparisons it should the head coach MacLean, who played wing alongside Yzerman during his best offensive season.
And for the predictions...
This is an interesting series - on the one hand, the Senators seem like a team that could cause New York to sweat, but then there's Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi forming one of the best pure defensive units in the league. New York in 6.
The Senators have been a nice story this year - I'm not sure anybody picked them to even make the playoffs - but the Rangers are just too good. Henrik Lundqvist is going to be a nightmare to face in the playoffs. New York in 5.
The sandpaper in the Blueshirts' game and King Henrik's exquisite performance in net will be too much for the Senators's skill players. New York in 5.
This should be an entertaining series to watch, as Brad Richards and Jason Spezza both lead some talented top-line forwards. The Rangers are the more consistent team, however, and should be able to grind out a win here to move on. New York in 6.