Multiple players and John Tortorella himself admitted that it was hard to not get excited in anticipation of the playoffs once the team had clinched the first seed in the conference and I think the same holds true for the fans. The Senators’ 3-1 record against the Rangers during the regular season has been brought up constantly ever since the first round match-ups were decided but the reality is that 82 games of winning is a far better indicator of talent and potential success than a four game sample size. Thus, the Rangers are the better team and should act like the better team, as for the first time in a long time the playoffs open in Madison Square Garden. Let’s look at the keys for tonight’s game and in general for this first round series.
Ottawa’s First Line: The Senators do not have much scoring depth but their first line has the potential to absolutely light up the opposition. Jason Spezza is probably the best forward on the Senators and his 84 points this season dictate as much. Against the Rangers this season he has four goals and two assists in four games. Milan Michalek plays on Spezza’s wing and had a career high 35 goals this season; a number that could have been higher had he not been injured in the middle of the season. Sure, Alfredsson and Turris are good players themselves, but if you stop Spezza and Michalek then Ottawa will have an incredibly difficult time scoring.
Brian Boyle: As Matt brilliantly pointed out earlier today, Brian Boyle is going to be an important player in this series. Of course it is going to be up to the entire checking line top stop Ottawa’s top line, but Brian Boyle especially is crucial to that task. He’ll be the man taking defensive zone faceoffs with the Spezza line is on. He’ll be the man covering the slot.
Even though Boyle’s established himself as an NHL player in the past couple of seasons he still hasn’t completely discovered his identity. I think this is an important series for him. It’s a chance to prove himself as a capable checking line center in the NHL.
Erik Karlsson: The Rangers are as good as any team in the NHL at collapsing in the slot, blocking shots, and cutting off passing lanes. However, Erik Karlsson might be the best defenseman in the NHL for exploiting that. He’s as good of a passer from the point as there is and has incredible poise with the puck. And his 19 goals this season shows that he’s great at shooting it as well. The Rangers have no choice but to pressure Karlsson and force him to make quick decisions, because there is not a single player on the Senators that can hurt the Rangers more than Erik Karlsson if he has the puck on his stick.
Henrik Lundqvist: This is Henrik’s first real chance to prove himself in the playoffs. No longer does he have an incompetent offense in and inconsistent defense in front of him. No longer are the Rangers severely outmatched talent wise. And thus, no longer does he have any excuses for not performing. This is the chance he’s been waiting for and I don’t doubt that he’s never been more focused in his career than he is right now. The Rangers still need him to be an elite goaltender and he has a chance to prove his worth in the clutch.
Brandon Dubinsky- Dubinsky called his regular season play a “nightmare” and no doubt it was that. That playoffs give him a clean slate, though, and he is exactly the kind of player who can excel in the playoffs because he battles in all zones and plays with no fear. The question is if he can clear his head and stick to his game. Dubinsky could be a key player in the playoffs or he could end up on a line with John Mitchell and Mike Rupp. He’ll decide his own fate not just for right now but perhaps next season as well.
Check out Senshot’s Game One preview as well.