With the second round Stanley Cup Playoffs series between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators looming, we look at the defense.
Listen, before you go penciling the New York Rangers into the Eastern Conference Finals, remember that these NHL playoffs are very much unpredictable—especially now that we’ve progressed to the elite eight.
Oftentimes, the team whose defense steps up and shuts down their adversary advances by limiting offensive chances and giving their goaltender vision, time and space to excel. This inherent defensive performance, combined with a timely offense is the recipe for playoff success, and this series against the Ottawa Senators could very well be decided by the winner of the Battle for the Blueline.
New York Rangers
If it ain’t broke … wait, it ain’t broke?!
Blueshirts fans throughout Gotham are lying if they say they expected the kind of gutsy, gritty performance the Rangers blueline turned in against the Montreal Canadiens in the latter part of their first round series. Ryan McDonagh is playing like a man possessed, having reached a level of dominance that’s particularly surprising given the excellence of his baseline performance level. The captain has certainly risen to the challenge of being the clear number one option, as evidenced by his vicious check on Andrew Shaw in game five against the Habs as well as his reliability and quality, which is on display at every phase of the game.
The major surprise for the Rangers has been the steady play of Girardi, the man who has been on the wrong side of seemingly endless jokes in the recent past. With G getting rest late in the season, it’s not all too shocking to see him playing well and providing Mac with the defensive partner he’s yearned for all season long.
Despite a rough stretch in game six against the Habs, Brady Skjei has looked like the up and coming d-man he’s been all season long and has found himself as half of a trustworthy pair alongside trade deadline acquisition Brendan Smith. Smith has played the role of the warrior so far, clearing the crease and making smart plays with the puck. This pairing will be vital moving forward.
Steady Staal and nifty Nick Holden have generally played well this postseason, with a few glaring exceptions. This third pairing will need to step up and shift their focus a bit from finishing checks and grinding to making smart, crisp passes out of their own zone in order to spring rushes the other way. With the Senators series expected to be predicated more on the speed element than the physicality posed by Montreal, Staal and Holden will have to adjust in order to solidify a Rangers blueline that’s played admirably thus far.
The Ottawa Senators pose unique and specific problems for opposing offenses, as they displayed during much of their first round, six-game series victory over the Boston Bruins. If the Rangers believe they can coast by and lazily dump and chase against the Sens, they’ll be in for a surprise. Under head coach Guy Boucher, the Senators play an extremely disciplined game, which (theoretically) results in difficulty finding open ice and completing unimpeded passes through the neutral zone.
While most of the focus and praise will (deservingly) be heaped upon Senators captain Erik Karlsson ahead of the upcoming second round battle between the New York Rangers and the Ottawa Senators, the Rangers need to understand and play into their greatest advantage in this series: their bottom-six forwards against the Senators third-pair defensemen.
Of course, the Blueshirts need to get the puck in deep on the Swede and try to finish their checks on him in hopes of creating a cumulative toll on his body, as he already has two hairline fractures in his left heel.
However, the two-time Norris Trophy winner, who is also nominated for the award this season, is nearly impossible to take out of a game entirely. The Rangers must devote energy to limiting Karlsson as much as possible with checks and scrappy play. They surely know how difficult a task this will be, as they’ve witnessed his magic against Boston. Karlsson is as talented as they come offensively with his vision and shot and has drastically improved his defensive game too—but the same cannot be said for the rest of the Sens’ blueline.
Marc Methot, Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci will also see extended minutes in the series, especially given the absence of Mark Borowiecki, who missed the last four games of the Bruins series with a lower-body injury and is questionable for game one. The reason the top-four play so many minutes is because of the lack of defensive depth for the Sens, and their third pair currently consists of two players Boucher will not be looking to roll out during crunch time of a 2-2 game late in the third period or overtime.
This is where Grabner, Lindberg and Fast come in. The Rangers should be able to conjure up long stretches of offensive zone pressure when they get this matchup on the ice. While the depth is a relatively big upper hand, the Rangers need to take full advantage, as the impact of Karlsson is especially potent on the Senators power play.