The day has finally come. The 2012 Staley Cup Playoffs have arrived for the number one seeded New York Rangers, and it is now time for them to prove to the rest of the League that they are contenders and not just pretenders. Teams simply aren’t defined by their performance during the regular season in the National Hockey League. It’s about what you do in the postseason that instills a lasting impression, and just how close you get to capturing the most sacred trophy in all of sports. The 2011-12 New York Rangers have a legitimate shot at repeating something that hasn’t been done since the year 1994, and their magical journey begins tonight, in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Ottawa Senators.
Typically, in years past, the Blueshirts would be preparing to open the playoffs on the road, entering an away arena as the underdog not only that night, but for the entire series. This year, however, the tables have turned, as they come in as the favorites with home ice advantage on their side. This is not an opportunity that presents itself often; just look at the solid season the Philadelphia Flyers had this year, yet they still found themselves in the bottom four in the East – it’s not easy. But the Rangers are fortunate enough to ignite their playoff run tonight in front of a roaring home crowd at Madison Square Garden, and this is something they cannot let go to waste.
This series has been picked apart by many, including right here on this blog, over the past week. Everyone now knows that the Senators were 3-1-0 against the Rangers during the regular season, but still struggled as a team to barely squeak into the playoffs in the final month. Everyone knows that Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers had a stellar year and are the heavy favorites to win this series against the Sens. But tonight that is all thrown out the window as a clean slate is laid out. The past is exactly that – the past – come playoff time, and everything starts clean for every team that’s lucky enough to have made it to this point.
Ottawa may have the odds against them, but they bring a much more even match-up to the table than many acknowledge. They have top-notch offensive skill in Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, a potential Norris Trophy finalist in Erik Karlsson and a goaltender in Craig Anderson who is more than capable of holding his own. They are a tough team to play against because of all of this, coupled with their speed and outstanding powerplay unit. The Senators are not pushovers by any means.
Head coach Paul MacLean has done a fantastic job with this team during the regular season considering the expectations going in. This Senators team was predicted to finish near the bottom of the Conference before opening night, but here they are, the only eastern Canada team to have made it to the playoffs. Not much fazes this club mentally, so MacLean will be ordering his squad to come out firing tonight. They will be getting in the faces of the Rangers in attempt to downplay the meaning of home ice advantage. They’re going to come and they’re going to come hard.
This means that the Rangers must be prepared to play a hard fought physical game, and that at the very least, they must match the intensity brought to the ice by the Senators. It is key for New York to play smart hockey, limit turnovers and get on the forecheck early. As I’ve said, the Rangers are the better team below the hashmarks, and if they can get to work there early and often, they will force the Senators into costly mistakes.
At the same time, they must remain discipline themselves. As mentioned above, Ottawa had one of the more successful powerplays in the League this season, and that did wonders for them in their push to the playoffs. The Rangers have been guilty of taking air-headed penalties at times this year, but their incredible penalty-kill bailed them out more often than not. The kill will need to come up big in the postseason as well, sure, but with playoff games coming down to momentum swings and mistakes, they don’t want to be out there a lot.
As far as defending goes, the area of concentration against the Senators will be the neutral zone. This is where their rush first begins to take form, and defenseman Erik Karlsson is huge part of that. The Rangers would be wise to step up on the Sens and break up the play at the blue-line before it even has a chance to enter the offensive zone. The Senators can be crafty with their passing once they are in range of the opposing goal, so it’s a safe bet to not let the play even get there.
But aside from all of the technicalities, the Rangers need to feed off of their home crowd tonight. It’s known that the place will be rocking, so it shouldn’t be hard for the Blueshirts to take that energy and get off to a quick start. The first game is always super important because it makes a statement and sets the tone for the series. The Rangers will undoubtedly want to be the team to set the tone tonight.
The lineup for New York will remain the same as it was in the final game of the regular season, which means no rookie Chris Kreider.
New York Rangers Lineup