Most people figured the New York Rangers would be an improved team this season after signing prized free agent Brad Richards over the summer. However, few could have projected the Blueshirts claiming the top seed in the Eastern Conference while experiencing a 16-point bump in the standings.
The signing of a top-notch centerman certainly helped improve a club that already had a strong core group before inking Richards to that mammoth nine- year, $60 million deal.
Yet, even with Richards, who was first on the team with 41 assists and second with 66 points, the Rangers are still known more for their ability to stop the opposition from scoring than their own offensive prowess. New York finished 11th in the league with an average of 2.71 goals per game this season and the Blueshirts were third in team defense with just 2.22 goals allowed per contest.
Henrik Lundqvist is the leader of New York's stingy back end and the Swedish goaltender is coming off a 2011-12 regular season that could land him his first Vezina Trophy as the league's best puck-stopper. He was among the three finalists for the Vezina three times over his first six NHL seasons, but the award could finally be his after turning in a spectacular seventh campaign.
Lundqvist was New York's best player this year and there are some folks talking up "King Henrik" for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Already considered one of the league's best goaltenders heading into 2011-12, Lundqvist managed to post personal bests in wins (39), goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.930) while also recording eight shutouts.
However, the playoffs have been a bugaboo for the 30-year-old Lundqvist during his career. Lundqvist is 15-20 with a 2.60 GAA in the postseason and he's failed to lead New York past the opening round in the club's last three trips to the playoffs.
One thing going in Lundqvist and New York's favor this spring is the club's ever-improving group of talented young defensemen. Dan Girardi, 27, has become the leader of the D-men as witnessed by the team-high 26 minutes, 14 seconds of ice time he averaged while playing in all 82 games this year.
Girardi, who had five goals, 29 points and a plus-13 rating this season, combines with Ryan McDonagh to form one of the league's best top pairings. At just 22 years of age, McDonagh had a breakout season in his sophomore campaign as an NHLer, posting seven goals, 25 assists and a team-best plus-25 rating.
While Girardi and McDonagh are New York's best overall defensemen, Michael Del Zotto is the club's best offensive weapon from the blue line. Del Zotto, who is also 22 years old, had career-bests in goals (10), assists (31) and plus- minus (plus-20).
Once considered to be the club's No. 1 defenseman of the future, Marc Staal is coming off a down year, but he still provides tremendous depth for New York at the back end. Anton Stralman, Tim Erixon and Stu Bickel are all capable of eating up any extra minutes left over by New York's top-two pairings.
Marian Gaborik is New York's top sniper as the speedy winger led the Rangers with 41 goals and 76 points. Gaborik hopes to have a better showing in this year's postseason than he did last spring when the Slovakian had one goal and one assist in five games during New York's opening round loss to Washington.
Richards, meanwhile, is a proven playoff performer who won the Conn Smythe Trophy during Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup title in 2004, when he was also coached by Rangers bench boss John Tortorella. All told, Richards has posted 62 points (21 goals, 41 assists) in 63 career postseason games.
Ryan Callahan was named as the Rangers captain prior to this season and the 27-year-old responded with his best NHL campaign. Callahan finished second to Gaborik on the team with a career-best 29 goals and he was third on the club with 54 points. Callahan led all New York forwards with an average ice time of 21:02.
After Richards' 25 goals, New York's next-best snipers this season were Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov, who had 17 and 16 goals, respectively. Carl Hagelin, who is New York's lone rookie forward, also had 14 goals, 24 assists and a plus-21 rating in his debut season.
The Rangers may also use highly-touted forward prospect Chris Kreider in this series after signing him to a three-year, entry-level contract on Tuesday. The 20-year-old Kreider, who was taken by New York with the 19th overall pick of the 2009 draft, finished his collegiate career with Boston College this past weekend after helping the Eagles win their second national championship in the last three seasons. He totaled 23 goals and 45 points in 44 games during his junior season, including four points (3G, 1A) in four NCAA tournament tilts.
Kreider has joined the Rangers and despite never having played professionally, he could make his NHL debut some time during the upcoming playoffs.
New York's biggest weakness appears to be getting results on the power play, where the Rangers were ranked 23rd in the league with a 15.7-percent success rate. Callahan (13 PPG) and Gaborik (10 PPG) combined to score 23 of New York's 44 power-play goals this season.
Conversely, the Rangers' were ranked fifth in the league in killing penalties, as they stopped the opposition's power play from scoring 86.2 percent of the time.
OTTAWA SENATORS (8th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 41-31-10
2011 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.
(Sports Network) - One of the more surprising stories of the 2011-12 regular season was Ottawa's return to the playoffs after missing the postseason in two of the previous three campaigns.
After all, the Senators were ranked 13th out of 15 Eastern Conference teams with 74 points in 2010-11 and, at first glance, the club did not appear to have improved all that much in the offseason.
A few things happened to help Ottawa gain 18 points in the standings this year, but the biggest factor was the emergence of defenseman Erik Karlsson, who made the jump from highly-touted prospect to one of the most feared offensive blueliners in the game.
Karlsson, 21, was drafted by Ottawa with the 15th overall pick of the 2008 draft and had certainly showed promise before this season, but few people could have predicted his amazing bump in production. The Swede combined to post 18 goals and 71 points in 140 games through his first two NHL campaigns before exploding for 78 points (19g, 59a) in 81 games this season.
Karlsson tied Nashville's Shea Weber for the NHL goal-scoring lead among defensemen, but he had 25 points more than the next-best blueliner in the league. In the end, Karlsson would tie for 10th among all NHL point producers and his 78 points was easily a franchise record by a defenseman.
With Karlsson running the power play, Ottawa ranked 11th in the NHL on the man advantage this season.
Another pleasant surprise for the Sens this season was the play of journeyman goaltender Craig Anderson, who came to Ottawa with little fanfare prior to the 2010-11 trade deadline, but has turned into a steady performer for the club.
Anderson went 33-22-6 with a 2.83 GAA and .914 save percentage this year. He played in 63 games and that number would have been considerably higher if Anderson didn't miss nearly a month of the season in February and March with a cut sustained due to a freak cooking accident.
While those aren't earth-shattering numbers for a goalie it should be noted that unlike his counterpart in this series, Anderson does not have the benefit of playing with a stellar defensive group in front of him in Ottawa. Karlsson is easily the club's best overall defenseman and he still has plenty of room for improvement in his own zone. Filip Kuba is usually paired with Karlsson to give the top unit a stay-at-home presence.
Sergei Gonchar had a better second season in Ottawa compared to his dreadful year in 2010-11, but the five-time All-Star has clearly lost a step. He will turn 38 years of age during this series and is usually paired with either Chris Phillips or Jared Cowen.
As a team, Ottawa finished 24th in the NHL with 236 goals surrendered this season, making the Senators the worst defensive team to qualify for this year's playoffs.
Ottawa had just one forward that was able to outscore Karlsson this season and that was Jason Spezza, who had 84 points on 34 goals and 50 assists. It was the fourth-highest point total of Spezza's career and his best output since he had a career-best 92 points in 2007-08.
Meanwhile, Milan Michalek turned in his best season with Ottawa, posting a team-high 35 goals, shattering the personal best of 26 tallies he had with San Jose in 2006-07.
At 39 years of age, captain Daniel Alfredsson is no longer at the top of his game, but the classy Swede still managed 27 goals, 59 points and a plus-16 rating in 75 games this season. Even though he is signed with Ottawa through the 2012-13 season, Alfredsson has hinted that he could retire after this campaign.
Ottawa doesn't have a great deal of offensive firepower after their top-three point producers. Colin Greening finished fourth among the Sens forwards with 17 goals and Nick Foligno was fourth in points with 47. Kyle Turris, the former No. 3 overall pick of the 2007 draft, had 12 goals and 17 assists in 49 games for Ottawa after coming over from Phoenix in a trade earlier this season.
On paper, the top-seeded Rangers would seem to be the heavy favorites in this conference quarterfinal round series, but Ottawa actually fared very well in the head-to-head meetings between the clubs in 2011-12.
Ottawa won three of four matchups against the Rangers this year and the Sens took the final two encounters by a combined 7-1 margin. That means Tortorella has his work cut out for him in finding what went wrong against the Sens during the regular season and fixing it for this series.
Gaborik led the Rangers with three goals and five points in four games against Ottawa, while Spezza and Michalek each had four goals for Ottawa. Karlsson added five assists over the four meetings.
The Rangers and Senators have never met before in the playoffs.
Despite New York's struggles in the season series, it would be shocking to see the Rangers go down in the first round to a Senators' club that was inconsistent for much of the season. The Rangers, on the other hand, experienced few bumps in the road en route to winning their first division title since 1993-94, which was also the last time the Blueshirts lifted Lord Stanley's Cup.
New York's superior depth, especially at the blue line, should be the difference in this series. Expect the Senators to come out strong to start the series before Tortorella's Rangers survive and advance.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Rangers in 6