The top-seeded New York Rangers will begin the best-of- seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals at home, as they host the Ottawa Senators for Game 1 tonight at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers are the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time since winning their last Stanley Cup championship in 1993-94, which was also the last time New York claimed an Atlantic Division title.
New York finished the year with 109 points, edging Pittsburgh by one point for both the division crown and the top spot in the East. That comes on the heels of a 93-point performance in 2010-11, a season that ended with the Rangers losing in five games to Washington in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Rangers haven't won a playoff round since ousting New Jersey in the 2008 conference quarterfinals and the Blueshirts have since lost four straight postseason series.
The eighth-seeded Senators haven't had much success in the playoffs recently either, going 0-2 in postseason series since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007.
Most people figured the Rangers would be an improved team this season after signing prized free agent Brad Richards over the summer, but few could have projected the Blueshirts claiming the top seed in the East.
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.
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 sore spot 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. That group is led by the pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh.
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.
"What you learn it's not just one game, it's a series and it's best out of seven," Gaborik told his team's web site about the playoffs. "You can't get down if things are not going your way. You have to stay positive. It's a series, and everyone is bringing it to another level. That's what I learned. The post-season is a new and different season from the regular season."
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.
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. 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 was one of the more surprising stories of the 2011-12 regular, as the Senators returned 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 at 21 years of age is one of the most feared offensive blueliners in the game. Karlsson led all NHL defensemen with 78 points, a franchise record for Ottawa D-men, and he tied Nashville's Shea Weber for the league lead with 19 goals from the back end.
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.
Goaltender Craig Anderson, who came to Ottawa with little fanfare prior to the 2010-11 trade deadline, turned into a steady performer for the club this season. Anderson went 33-22-6 with a 2.83 GAA and .914 save percentage this year and Ottawa hopes he can improve upon those numbers in this postseason.
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. 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, who have never met before in the playoffs, will play Game 2 of this series Saturday in New York.