If you talk to hockey fans outside of either New York or Ottawa, the Eastern Conference series begins at 7:30 pm tonight. It’s Washington against Pittsburgh–the 2016-17 President’s Cup winner against last year’s Stanley Cup team. It’s Sidney vs. Ovi; Fleury vs. Holtby; Malkin vs. Kuznetsov. And we all have to admit, it should be a great series, worthy of everyone’s attention. But here in the New York area, it is the Rangers against Ottawa that we are all taking about. It will be Lundqvist versus Anderson between the pipes, and the recently swapped Derick Brassard against Mika Zibanejad in the face off circles. Yes, the games may be a little less offensively exciting than those in the Caps/Pens series, but no they will be no less meaningful.
Expect this second round match-up to be more of a defensive chess match, filled with positioning and strategic passes. The question is, can New York match Ottawa at this type of game? The Rangers are built for speed and opportunity; the Senators play to slow New York down and then strike at their rare opportunities. Ottawa was pretty successful in their game strategy during the regular season, winning two out of three contests against the Blueshirts, including a painful shutout in New York in November. This time, Ottawa is expected to keep the Rangers to a low shot count, and if the Rangers want to win, several of New York’s skaters will have to step up their game (both offensively and defensively).
Defensively, the Rangers need to focus on Brassard, Bobby Ryan, and Eric Karlsson, all of whom have played a huge part in the Sens offensive production thus far in the post-season. In total, the Sens had 41total points in their first round series against Boston–21 of those points belong to Brassard, Ryan and Karlsson. It’s Brassard that I am most worried about. I never discount a player’s desire to get even with the most recent team that traded them away, and Brassard certainly has reason to show the Rangers that they made a mistake sending him to Ottawa. Plus, he has always been a big playoff point producer–and this year is no different. Brassard is carrying a team-leading eight points in six playoff games.
While most of Brassard’s points are assists, Ryan is the team’s goal scorer. If you keep him from in front of the net and defend against him tightly, he will be much less effective. As to what to do about Karlsson, he is without question one of the best offensive defensemen in the league, but he announced recently that he has played through the first round with two hairline fractures in his left heel. Pretty impressive, especially since, in the Boston series, he averaged more than 30 minutes per game (there were a total of five OT periods in that round). The question is, now that they know about Karlsson’s “lower body injury,” can the Rangers make it hard for Karlsson to do his job. While at the same time, keep Brassard and Ryan quiet?
It’s going to take some very good D to get the job done. Do the Rangers have that in them? It certainly is possible. Girardi and Staal played an excellent defensive series against Montreal. If they continue along those lines, no matter which of the two top pairings Brassard is up against, it will be very hard for him to get the space he needs to make the plays that make the Sens so quietly dangerous. And Karlsson, him they need to hit–consistently and hard. As for Ryan, he has come alive in the playoffs after a very disappointing season. The key to handling him is to keep him away from the net and off the score sheet in the first game. Maek him ineffective for long enough, so his growing confidence wanes.
In the meantime, several Rangers need to step up their game. Specifically, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan need to do more. Kreider was pretty much invisible during the entire series with the Canadiens. The Rangers won that series, but Ottawa is a different animal, and for New York to get past the Sens, Kreider must produce. And Stepan–he needs to win face offs much more consistently. In the Montreal series, his face off percentage was 37.3%. That abysmal number was the reason that the series against the Canadiens was even close. Obviously, any team needs to have the puck to be able to score, but if you don’t win face offs, you will not often get scoring chances. I never thought that Stepan was a real number one center and one of the reasons is his lack of ability to consistently win face offs. I would love to be wrong and have him suddenly become effective at this skill, but I am not sure how he is going to change that now. He must though, for the Rangers to win this series.
Finally, Michael Grabner has been nowhere near as productive since the Grabner/Miller/Hayes line has been split up. The line was very successful at several times during the regular season, particularly for Grabner, who scored a large portion of this 27 goals with Miller and Hayes. The Rangers should give this line more playing time now, and see how it works. This past Sunday, Hayes, with Miller on his line, had one of the best professional games of his career. Both he and Miller were very effective. Imagine how effective they would be if they had Grabner finish their incredible passes and hard work. Yes, its obvious Mats Zuccarello can do the job, but he can also be effective on another line. Grabner really cannot be; so put him where he works best.
So, although I do not have a crystal ball and do not generally make predictions, I have learned through the last few months not to bet against the Rangers–so I won’t. Rangers in seven what I think will be a very grueling series.