It's the most wonderful time of the hockey year and I am going to celebrate it by breaking down every series. I will also be tracking scoring chances, this one I'm about to talk about not being one of them. The Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers both have terrific bloggers who already track scoring chances for their respective teams and I am sure that they are looking forward to what should be a great series. I have a feeling that this series should be a lot closer than most people are predicting because Ottawa is a little better than a lot of people give them credit for and at the same time, the Rangers aren't as good as their #1 seed indicates.
We will break this series down after the jump.
The interesting thing about this series is that both teams have been relatively even at controlling possession at even strength.
Ottawa has been a stronger team at even strength by a minuscule amount, so the possession rates here probably don't matter here as much as they usually do. Both teams are also getting about the same amount of puck-luck when it comes to shooting percentage, which is a little surprising given how much the Rangers were riding the percentages earlier in the year and how hot Ottawa's top line was for awhile.
Where these two teams differentiate is goaltending and special teams. The Rangers have one of the best goalies in the world right now while Ottawa has gotten average goaltending from Craig Anderson & his backups. Anderson is also not far removed from a bizarre injury where he cut himself with a knife while cooking dinner. He has been quality in his last five starts since his return, so I think Ottawa should be secure in net. Anderson is capable of stealing a game but Henrik Lundqvist is an elite goaltender so the advantage has to go to the Rangers here. That being said, any goalie can steal a game on any given night and vice versa.
Along with Lundqvist, Rangers penalty kill has been one of the reasons for their success this year. They are a top 10 team in the league at preventing shots on goal when playing 4-on-5 and Lundqvist's .905 save percentage on the PK has only made it better. Ottawa's powerplay is in the middle of the road at getting shots on goal, but they have plenty of talent up front and on the blue-line to do some damage, so I expect the Rangers PK to get a good test here.
Conversely, the Rangers powerplay has not been great and it's been one of the team's biggest flaws this season. Ottawa's penalty kill is also not very impressive either so these issues could off-set each other but with both team's being so even at five-on-five play, I think one of these team's powerplays is going to have to show up to be the deciding factor. It will be interesting to see how the Sens powerplay performs against the Rangers' strong PK, because that could be what leads Ottawa to an upset.
A quick word on how to interpret this chart. This is an "OZ QoC" chart which plots the player's offensvie zone start percentage against their corsi relative to quality of competition. This shows what kind of role each player is being used in. The bubbles represents the player's corsi relative, which shows whether or not they are driving possession. A blue bubble means they have a positive corsi relative and a red bubble means they have a negative rating. The bigger size of the bubble shows how far into positive or negative territory the player is.
The Rangers forward depth is pretty solid with Gaborik, Richards and Hagelin emerging as a dangerous scoring line as of late. Ryan Callahan is also having a terrific season and is one of the Rangers main heavy lifters along with Brandon Dubinsky. They also have Brian Boyle taking a good bulk of defensive zone face-offs, which probably frees up Richards's line to some easier ice time and it's definitely worked as of late.
The Rangers haven't been a great possession team this year but they do have a good few players who can drive play in the right direction, one of the most important players being rookie Carl Hagelin. He gets somewhat sheltered zone starts, but he is playing in the top-six and doing a phenomenal job at creating scoring chances and driving possession in the Rangers favor. His line will be key in this series and so will Callahan's line if he can win the tough matchups and still produce offensively.
Even some of New York's depth players like John Mitchell and Mats Zuccarello are winning the territorial battle and Boyle has done a great job at eating up the defensive zone draws while not getting hammered in his own end. I can't say the same for Prust or Fedotenko as they seem to be spending way too much time in the defensive zone. It is probably best that neither Mike Rupp or John Scott plays a lot of minutes as they both look like liabilities through possession metrics.
*Note Konopka & O'Brien's bubbles are mixed up.
Ottawa's top line is getting easier zone starts than the rest of the team but I'll be damned if they aren't winning that battle, especially Daneil Alfredsson. Colin Greening has also been playing on that top line and I guess they will do that in the playoffs to help spread the wealth among their forwards. The Sens have some solid possession players who can possibly give them some secondary scoring in this series.
Having two or three lines that are producing is key if you want to pull off a good run and Ottawa almost has the makings for that. They obviously have their top line centered by Jason Spezza but players like Kyle Turris and Nick Foligno could work well on a line with Alfredsson if the former two can dontinue to drive play well. Turris has quietly been very, very good for the Sens. Erik Condra & Bobby Butler have also been driving possession well against weak competition.
After that, their forward corps has mostly defensive-oriented players like Jesse Winchester and Zack Smith. I would guess that Condra, Neil or Butler will be playing on one of their bottom-two lines with Smith while Winchester plays on the fourth line with Zenon Konopka and Jim O'Brien. O'Brien hasn't played in many games but he appears to be doing fine with sheltered minutes while Konopka really can't do much besides win face-offs.
The Senators have plenty of potential secondary scoring present throughout their forward corps, so if Michalek, Spezza or Alfresson goes through a dry patch, then hopefully they can count on Foligno or Turris to pick up the slack.
Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are the anchors of this defense. They have been taking on the toughest competition all season long and I don't see that changing in the playoffs. Expect them to be glued to the Spezza line this post-season and play near a half-hour per night. John Tortorella has always been very careful with how he manages his defense in the playoffs and by that, I mean he rides his top d-men like pack mules and makes sure that they are always out there when the opposing team's main scoring line is.
Tortorella's job could be easier if Marc Staal were having a better season but it is clear that he hasn't been himself since returning from a concussion, so this could pose a favorable matchup for Ottawa if they choose to split-up their top line. That being said, Turris is not the playmaker that Spezza is and McDonagh/Girardi are going to be out against Spezza no matter what so this could not be as big of an issie as I think it may.
Outside of the big three, New York doesn't have a lot of d-men who have been tilting possession in the Rangers favor this year. Stu Bickel is having a respectable rookie season and Anton Stralman is doing good as a third pairing guy, but Michael Del Zotto is hugely inconsistent as you never know which player you will get with him. Both Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka are best kept in the press box but one of them has to play in this series and my guess is that it will be Eminger.
New York is known for their strong defensive play but they clearly lack depth on the blue-line and it's possible that their top-pairing might become worn out from logging too many minutes per night.
I mentioned that the Rangers have depth issues on the blue line, but I think Ottawa might run into a similar problem. Erik Karlsson is having a phenomenal season and gives Ottawa's game a completely different dimension with how much offensive he brings from the blue-line. He is also a terrific skater and has played against opposing team's top competition for most of the season along with Filip Kuba. I feel that Karlsson will largely be a factor on the powerplay moreso than even strength but the Rangers are going to have difficulty keeping track of him no matter what because of how many minutes he plays.
Ottawa's depth looks bleak going by this, but I don't think Kuba is as bad as his numbers look here. He has benefited from playing with Karlsson but he does help clean up some of the messes Karlsson causes in his own zone at times. They make a nice tandem. The issue is after that, there are some guys who may need protection. Sergei Gonchar has gotten worse with age and is very slow now, both Matt Gilroy and Jared Cowen probably need to be sheltered a fair bit and I don't know what the hell happened to Chris Phillips. Once upon a time, he was one of Ottawa's best defense defensemen but I guess age caught up with him. That being said, him and Matt Carkner do take a lot of draws in their own end but they are not matched up against other team's top lines that often.
I touched on this earlier, but I think any goalie can steal any game for any team at any time. That includes Craig Anderson and Henrik Lundqvist. That being said, Lundqvist and the Rangers definitely have the advantage here and if Lundqvist can play like he did for most of the early part of the year, then the Rangers might have an easier series than I think they will. Anderson should be good enough to keep the Sens in just about every game and we've seen him have some playoff magic with the Avalanche two years ago. I don't think lightning will strike twice, though.
One thing I love about this year's first round is that there aren't a lot of mismatches, especially in the 1 vs. 8 seed matchups. Ottawa is definitely capable of pulling an upset and they've been a tough match for the Rangers all season (won season series 3-1-0). However, I do not think an upset happens and I say the Rangers take it in six games. The Sens are a good team but it is hard to bet against Lundqvist and the way he has played this year. I would also take the Rangers defense over Ottawa's and I think their penalty kill stays strong and prevents the upset.