NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 05: (L-R) Brad Richards #19 and Marian Gaborik #10 of the New York Rangers celebrate a third period goal against the Florida Panthers at Madison Square Garden on January 5, 2012 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Panthers 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Ottawa Senators are an impressive surprise under coach Paul MacLean, but the New York Rangers should be too much for them in the first round.
One team rode Wade Redden's best years to a Stanley Cup final, the other team pays Redden a lot of money to stay the hell out of their way to the Stanley Cup final.
The common threads end there for the Ottawa Senators, who were rebuilding and suddenly find themselves in the playoffs, and the New York Rangers, who have always spent like contenders only to frequently look like they're rebuilding.
But with a mix of (finally) home-grown talent, a couple of top-dollar offensive stars, and the consistently great Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have at last found the balance to get this team-building thing right. It's landed them at the top of the Eastern Conference and just two points short of the top record in the NHL after 82 games.
For a team that only puts up 28.5 shots per game (20th overall), the Rangers manage an impressive 2.71 goals per game, good for 11th. It helps to have an elite scorer like Marian Gaborik and his 41 goals. Big free agent acquisition Brad Richards disappointed some -- as has core returnee Brandon Dubinsky -- but Richards' 25 goals are about as should be expected. Ryan Callahan and revelation Carl Hagelin add to the balanced threat.
The Senators offer plenty of offensive talent of their own, putting up nearly three goals per game with Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson all being 30-goal threats. Mid-season acquisition Kyle Turris adds needed depth to the top six. But the real source of Ottawa's offensive threat comes from the back in the form of Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson, whose 78 points were only 25 more than the nearest NHL defenseman.
Edge: Senators, thanks to Karlsson's single-handed breakouts.
The previously mentioned quartet of Rangers blueliners combine with Lundqvist and the team's committed shot-blocking forwards to provide the team's true strength. The Rangers have risen thanks to a full-team buy-in to coach John Tortorella's concept of team defense. The only concern is Staal's slow return to form a lengthy concussion layoff.
Richards, Gaborik and Callahan have 30 power-play goals between them, but that's not enough to bring the Rangers' power play above 23rd overall with their 15.7% production. In 5-on-4 shots per 60 minutes they rank even worse -- 27th overall.
Karlsson's offensive contributions are well represented on the power play, where the Senators rank 11th overall.
What the Rangers lack on the power play they make up with their 5th-ranked penalty kill (86.2%), another key facet to their team defense. The Senators meanwhile rank only 20th (81.6%). The ultimate penalty killer is of course Lundqvist, who plays deep in his crease and possesses the reflexes to match -- and to make himself less vulnerable to horizontal passing plays while shorthanded.
There really is no comparison to Lundqvist, whose only peer at the top of the league's goaltending heap is Tim Thomas when he's on his game. Lundqvist has kept the Rangers competitive for several seasons, and now that they've improved the team around him he could take them several rounds deep.
Craig Anderson is certainly capable of stealing games in big, 40-plus save nights, but he had an injury layoff this season and isn't in Lundqvist's class. Towering rookie Ben Bishop provides interesting insurance and beat the Rangers the only time he faced them. Either Senators goalie is capable of stealing a game, but Lundqvist is far more likely to steal a series.
SENATORS WILL WIN IF ... everything goes right, from the special teams to the goaltending, and if Gaborik is a no-show. The Senators are a slightly better possession team, so an upset isn't out of the question.
RANGERS WILL WIN IF ... they just keep doing what they're doing. Although the Senators are impressive and a nice surprise under coach Paul MacLean, the Rangers are too cohesive, have too good a goalie and too many playoff-friendly attributes to bow out in a first-round upset.