In the first round, it took the Rangers six games to advance over the Canadiens in the most entertaining and physical series of the eight match-ups. They did it with center depth, a stronger blue line, a key lineup adjustment and the sensational play of a resurgent Henrik Lundqvist.
They won due to coach Alain Vigneault’s decision to sub in gifted rookie Pavel Buchnevich for Game 1 hero Tanner Glass. A move that altered the four lines providing better balance, speed and skill which came through in the final three games of the series. By putting Buchnevich back with Mika Zibanejad, it got the center going. He proved to be a huge hero scoring the overtime winner in Game 5 off a Chris Kreider shot that was blocked by Alexei Emelin. Kreider, who otherwise had a miserable first round. It was Zibanejad who led the Rangers with four points (1-3-4).
Now, it will be a battle against his former team the Senators in an intriguing second round series that starts tomorrow night at 7 PM in Ottawa. Here it is. Your ultimate storyline. The trade from last summer that sent Derick Brassard to the Sens with a seventh round pick in exchange for Zibanejad, a second round pick which became key defenseman Brendan Smith. All parties are happy. Brassard turned into #BigGameBrass in Ottawa’s six-game first round win over Boston by pacing them with eight points (2-6-8). That included a nice set up for unsung hero Clarke MacArthur’s series clincher in Game 6 of sudden death.
It shapes up to be a very good series. So, what do the match-ups look like? Let’s take a look:
The Senators got key performances from Brassard and Cherry Hill, Jersey native Bobby Ryan (4-3-7) in the first round. They are deeper than the Canadiens. Even though they play a tight 1-3-1 system under coach Guy Boucher, they can transition quickly with dangerous game breakers Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone. Hoffman went 2-1-3 and Stone only had a goal and assist. The Rangers must key on both. Particularly the righty Stone’s lethal shot. Hoffman has great breakaway speed. Brassard and Kyle Turris form a potent 1-2 punch. There’s also gritty shorthanded threat Zack Smith and speedster Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Ex-Ranger Viktor Stalberg and Ryan Dzingel supply depth. Look out for former Vigneault pupil Alex Burrows, who can be a thorn in the side.
The Rangers counter with a solid 1-4 of Zibanejad, Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes and underrated fourth line checking pivot Oscar Lindberg. To win, they need better play from Stepan and Hayes. Stepan had a bad first round with only an assist and empty netter that sealed the win. He also was under 40 percent on face-offs. He needs to kick it in high gear. Playing with Rick Nash, who has looked great, along with poised rookie Jimmy Vesey should get him going. He has a tendency to step up. Expect better from him. Hayes was brilliant in Game 6 with terrific chemistry between J.T. Miller and Mats Zuccarello, whose two goals including the series winner off a brilliant Hayes pass, remains the glue. Zuccarello had three goals including two game-deciders while playing chippy. He competes as hard as anyone. It goes without saying that they need more out of Miller, who was at times puzzling. One assist won’t get it done. The same for Hayes, who was surprisingly strong on draws (57.6 percent). Jesper Fast was heroic going 2-1-3 with a shorthanded goal along with his usual strong defensive work. The fourth line of Fast, Lindberg and Michael Grabner should give the Rangers an edge.
When it comes down to it, Erik Karlsson is a special player. The Senators captain is so brilliant that even a couple of hairline fractures in his foot couldn’t slow him down against Boston. He still dominated posting six assists while being a horse logging over 30 minutes. Part of it is that five of the six games were decided in overtime. Obviously, he is dangerous. A superb skater with unreal playmaking skills, shooting and a commitment to defense. He might be the best passer in the game. The Rangers want to key on him and pick their spots finishing checks. Karlsson is a handful. He partners with rugged Dion Phaneuf, who has fit in seamlessly. He had a quietly good first round going 1-2-3 with a plus-two and only one minor penalty. The key is Ottawa’s bottom four. Cody Ceci and Marc Methot are the grit of the back end doing the little things that win. Ceci led the Sens with 23 blocked shots while Methot had 25 hits. What’s the status of hard cruncher Mark Borowiecki? He won’t play tomorrow. The bottom pair is questionable with Chris Wideman splitting duty with youngsters Ben Harpur and Fredrik Claesson. It’s really about the top four for Ottawa with Boucher leaning heavily on Karlsson.
The Rangers are led by captain Ryan McDonagh. Even though he didn’t score a goal in the first round, he elevated his play in Games 4-6 playing some of his best hockey. After taking a tough hit, he played with more of an edge than we’ve grown accustomed to. Like old workhorse Dan Girardi, who had a throwback series with 21 blocks and 17 hits including a couple of heavy checks with one injuring Andrew Shaw, McDonagh threw the weight around. McDonagh recorded two assists including a wonderful primary helper that set up a big Nash goal for the game-winner in Game 4 last round. He wasn’t overworked by Vigneault logging 26:24. Vigneault did shorten up at times going with the big four of McDonagh, Girardi, Smith and Marc Staal, who got stronger. Rookie Brady Skjei is a very good skating D who scored twice and upped the physicality with 24 hits. He has formed a great partnership with Smith, who reminds of current assistant Jeff Beukeboom. He doesn’t take crap from anyone. Maybe that rubbed off. His play has been huge. Nick Holden remains the weak link. He’s turnover prone and can be scary at times. He did look more confident in the final two games. It’s about puck possession and offense for Holden, who needs to contribute with his shot.
In his first round battle against Carey Price, the 35-year old Lundqvist was locked in from the start after pitching a shutout in Game 1. He was unreal stopping 195 of 206 shots to post a 1.70 goals-against-average and .947 save percentage. One thing about the King. When he’s challenged, that’s when he’s most dangerous. Following a subpar season that saw career lows in GAA (2.74) and save percentage (.910), the Canadiens got the real Lundqvist and had trouble scoring. He’s carried the Blueshirts before helping them reach three Final Fours including the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
He’ll go up against another proven vet in Craig Anderson. The soon to be 36-year old American netminder has battled courageously while wife Nicholle is battling a rare form of head and neck cancer. Somehow, between taking time off to be with her, Anderson has been tremendous for Ottawa. In 40 games, he posted a 2.28 GAA, .926 save percentage with five shutouts during the season. A true inspiration, he was just as good against the Bruins holding them to 13 goals on 165 shots to finish with a 1.94 GAA and .921 save percentage with a shutout. He’s faced Lundqvist before with the Sens pushing the Rangers the limit in the 2012 first round before a prime Lundqvist backstopped his team to wins in Game 6 and 7 onto the second round. Anderson is a big goalie who can make the net look small. He must be moved side to side.
In the first round, Ottawa was good scoring five times on the power play. They have some big weapons including the best in the world in Karlsson. Plus Brassard, Turris, Ryan, Hoffman, Stone and Phaneuf. They went 5-for-23 clicking at 21.5 percent overall. Interestingly, they went only 1-for-11 at home but were a more precision like 4-for-12 on the road. They allowed one shorthanded goal. The Rangers did a solid job on the penalty kill going 17-for-20 for 83.3 percent. Up from the regular season. They scored a shorthanded goal (Fast). On the road, they went 10-for-11 while at home, going 9-for-11.
If there is a bugaboo, it’s their power play. Prior to getting Zuccarello’s power play goal in the second period of Game 6, they were 0 for the series. The Rangers went 1-for-15 going a awful 6.7 percent. Only the Blues were worse but they beat the Wild in six due to Jake Allen. The Rangers can’t be disorganized. Even if they don’t convert, they need better puck possession which stems from winning offensive draws. Also more shots instead of the overpassing we usually get. It’s up to the two units to figure it out. Nash needs to be more of a shooter. Kreider needs to make life difficult on Anderson. He didn’t against Price. McDonagh and Stepan weren’t factors in the first round. Zibanejad and Zuccarello combined for the lone PPG. The Rangers went 0-for-9 at Montreal and 1-for-6 at home. At least they didn’t allow a shorthanded goal. Using Skjei and Holden more might help. Ditto Buchnevich, who should play more.
It’s interesting to note that Vigneault got his start behind an NHL bench with Ottawa. He actually was an assistant coach on the expansion Senators in ’92-93 for over three years before headed to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. So, like Montreal, he has ties to the opponent. So far, he’s 2-for-2 against the Canadiens, who were the first NHL team he coached. Can he make it 3-for-3 against former Canadian teams? If he coaches like he did against Montreal, then I believe he can. He made the necessary adjustments by inserting Buchnevich and changing all four lines. He also did a good job managing his D and getting better match-ups. The power play remains an issue that must be solved by him and assistant Scott Arniel.
Boucher is a quality NHL coach. It took him a while to get back behind the bench following a stint in Tampa. I never understood why. He’s a good tactician who has his team playing a tough defensive system. Like Montreal, the Senators will look to take away the Rangers’ speed and transition by standing up at the blue line and clogging the neutral zone. They are a very patient team who can capitalize on turnovers. So, the Rangers must do a good job managing the puck. The thing that makes Boucher’s team better is his players. He boasts the all world Karlsson along with better offensive threats like Brassard, Hoffman, Ryan, Stone and Turris. In other words, he has good personnel.
I’ll give the edge to Vigneault due to experience. He’s been here before and gotten teams through. He definitely learned something because look how the Rangers played against the physical Canadiens. He took the handcuffs off. They responded by playing the most passionate, active hockey we’ve seen since John Tortorella’s teams. They went back and didn’t back down while continuing to play fast, aggressive hockey. Vigneault also adjusted by having his players chip and charge and make soft dumps in the corner to limit Price’s stickhandling. They must do the same against Anderson, who likes to play the puck and fuel the transition. If they can establish the forecheck and work the Ottawa D, it bodes well.
Analysis: This is another series of two different styles. The Rangers like to use their speed and transition to make life difficult. They are four lines deep and Vigneault showed more confidence rolling them once Buchnevich replaced Glass. They will need to bury a few more chances this round. Ottawa is more capable offensively. Karlsson is a weapon who must be shadowed. They must make it difficult on him. Brassard will be pumped for this series. If the first round is any indication, look out. How will Zibanejad play? I really was impressed with his response the final three games. If Lundqvist continues to stay hot, the Rangers have an edge. Anderson is good. He won’t be easy to beat as he proved in 2012. But I am expecting a little bit more out of Stepan, Hayes, Miller and Kreider this round. If it translates, they should get through.
Rangers in 7