I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics. Blogging between diaper changes.
Let me start with the obvious – having last met in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2012, both the Rangers and Senators have experienced sizable roster turnover since that now five-year-old first-round matchup. That Sens roster was highlighted by leading scorer Jason Spezza and featured a supporting cast of now ex-Sens Milan Michalek, Daniel Alfredsson, Nick Foligno, Colin Greening, Sergei Gonchar, and Filip Kuba among others. Likewise, the 2012 Rangers were spearheaded by their own group of former Blueshirts in Marian Gaborik, Brad, Richards, Ryan Callahan, Michael Del Zotto, and Carl Hagelin, et al. Because of this, trying to draw a comparison between them would likely get us nowhere in a hurry.
So, too, is the regular season series between the clubs this past season mostly irrelevant as my colleague, Dave Rogers, wisely pointed out.
Still, despite the mitigating regular season series and the extended postseason absence the respective teams have encountered these last five seasons, there are still a number of key elements that should help predict the Rangers’ likely course to victory and by way of, their path to a third Eastern Conference Final berth in four years.
Though not in order of importance, below is a breakdown of what are likely to be the three keys to the series:
Key One – Another Goaltending Showdown
Get used to this, because it’s going to be a recurring theme for as long as the Rangers continue to advance. Their best player is between the pipes, and his head-to-head play against the opposing netminder will be integral to the Rangers’ chances at victory.
That said, the story of the first round series between the Rangers and Canadiens rightfully gravitated around the metaphorical giants in net. It was a low-scoring series in general because of the incredible efforts of both Lundqvist and Price, who both managed to largely neutralize their opponents’ star players (Radulov notwithstanding). Lundqvist was superior, however, posting a 1.70 GA/A and a .947 SV% against the Canadiens through six games, including a shutout in game one. Only Pekka Rinne and Jake Allen had better individual goalie performances through the opening round in regard to GA/A and SV%.
Moreover, his Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA)—a metric used to determine the goals a goalie prevented given his save percentage and shots faced vs. the league average save percentage on the same number of shots—was an impressive 4.17. Of the remaining starters left in the playoffs, again only Rinne (6.28) and Allen (5.40) outperformed him.
When asked to speak to the Lundqvist factor, Sens captain Erik Karlsson had this to say:
“It’s going to be tough and we’re going to have to make it hard on him. If he sees the pucks, it’s not going to go in. He’s a big-time player and he plays well for them and they need him the most. If we let him off easy, it’s going to be hard to score goals on him.”
After the Rangers dropped game three to the Habs on Easter Sunday, Lundqvist seemed determined, if not individually motivated, not to relive the misery of what appeared to be an inevitable first-round loss and was a guiding force as the Blueshirts closed them out with three straight victories. If you’re looking for a quote on his impact in those games, just ask Tomas Plekanec how he feels, or maybe Max Pacioretty, who was kept off the scoresheet entirely in the series.
Anderson, by comparison, though unspectacular, still posted a very respectable 1.94 GA/A and a .921 SV% with one shutout in the Sens’ opening round salvo with a depleted Boston Bruins team. He gave up just two more goals than Lundqvist did in the same number of games.
Like Price, Anderson has also performed extremely well against the Rangers in the regular season. According to TSN’s Ian Mendes, his 1.74 GA/A and .944 SV% are the best regular season stat he has against any opponent in his career. But also like Price, it likely won’t matter when he goes head-to-head with arguably the best postseason goaltender to yet win a Stanley Cup in Lundqvist.
Lastly, while Anderson’s ability to play the puck, and thereby relieve the pressure on his teammates to make plays the full length of the ice, is an advantage, it’s not one the Rangers can’t counter with adjustments to their in-game strategy designed specifically to counter it. They did exactly that against Carey Price, who is also adept at moving the puck, by utilizing hard and cross corner dump ins that forced him to remain in his net, for example.
Key Two – Hello Darkness, My Old Friend
Traded for one another this past summer, one of the stronger storyline threads that’ll be woven throughout the series will be the play of Mika Zibanejad and Derick Brassard.
Man-to-man, Brassard has had the bigger impact thus far, leading the Senators in scoring with eight points in six games (two goals, six assists), while Zibanejad seemed to find his legs after being reunited with Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider in the second half of the Habs series. He, too, leads his team in scoring but with only four points in six games (one goal, three assists).
As a quick aside, none of this should give you any second thoughts about the trade. It was then and still is a move that benefits the Rangers most in the near future. Sure, they gave up the better player today by a slim margin, but Zibanejad also cost them half of what Brassard did against the cap and is five years younger with at the very least a Brassard-like future ahead of him. Zibanejad’s P/GP production has also steadily increased every season he’s been in the league, including a career-high 0.66 P/GP this past season—a production rate more than 25% better than Brassard’s regular season P/GP of 0.48. There’s no reason to think it won’t continue to improve while wearing a Rangers sweater through his prime years.
Still, Brassard’s play in the playoffs, especially in New York, were career-defining, and his offensive impact can be significant for the Senators where he’s playing on a line with a resurgent Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan – the latter of whom leads Ottawa in goals in the postseason with four. It will be important for the Rangers to match against his line to limit his opportunities, and by way of, the opportunities of both MacArthur and Ryan, too.
Key Three – Containment Difficulty Level: Expert
Erik Karlsson isn’t just the best defenseman on the Senators. He may be the best defenseman in the league, and his work through the first round of the playoffs only reinforces that fact. Despite playing with two hairline fractures in his left heel that caused him to miss the final five regular season games of the year, his lights out performance against the Bruins sees him leading the league in scoring among defensemen with six points in six games (all assists). All while averaging an astounding 30:23 in TOI/G (including 41:51 in game five).
“He’s not 100 percent; he won’t be 100 percent probably until next September,” Dorion said. “But the ability that he has to play through pain and to be as dominant as he has not being 100 percent says a lot about him.”
Karlsson’s vision on the ice is unrivaled, and his ability to move the puck up the ice is something the Rangers will likely struggle to contain. They must find a means to put a drag on him given his ability to play in more than half of the game. Allowing him to flourish the way the Bruins did wouldn’t give the Blueshirts much wiggle room to exploit the Sens’ additional defensive pairings the way they were able to exploit Montréal’s due to Shea Weber’s lack of an impact (and lack of foot speed) in the series. Alain Vigneault understood this from the onset and spoke to WFAN about it on Monday:
“There’s no doubt in my mind what we’re going to have to do is pay special attention to Karlsson, their defense,” Vigneault told WFAN on Monday. “He’s in on every rush. He’s a great first passer. So it’s going to be a different challenge for us, but it’s going to be a good challenge and one that we’re preparing right now, and we’re going to be ready come Thursday.”
Truth be told, the Rangers likely don’t have an answer for him, and even injured he’s superior to anything they have to combat him with. But similar to what they were able to accomplish against the Habs, if the Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, and Jimmy Vesey combo are able to reduce his impact, it’s more than plausible the Rangers depth in scoring can pick up the slack to give them another edge in the series. If not the Nash unit, then perhaps the KZB line instead where Chris Kreider’s speed and physicality would be tapped into to punish the smooth skating Swede with high-impact hits at every opportunity possible.
All-in-all, lead by their strict, defensively-oriented Bond villain of a head coach, Guy Boucher, the Senators greatest strength will be their play away from the puck where they will look to clog the neutral zone and passing lanes as a means of limiting the high-flying Rangers offense. Boucher’s no-nonsense approach isn’t fun, but it’s effective, and he even had Erik Karlsson buying in this season. The supremely talented offensive defenseman lead the Sens in blocked shots this season with 201, more than 40 more than the next highest shot-blocker, Cody Ceci. That number is up from his team-leading 175 blocks in 2015-16 and more than doubles the 89 he had in 2014-15, as well.
Like the case with Montréal, however, the Rangers scoring depth is far greater than the Senators. Line matching will only take Ottawa so far. Especially if the Rangers fourth line of Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg, and Jesper Fast are even half as effective as they were against the Canadiens. This, combined with the surging play of the KZB line and the superior goaltending of man on a mission, Henrik Lundqvist, it’s advantage Rangers in this series. Perhaps in as few as five games.