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At the risk of sounding like an unabashed partisan, I'm reluctantly going to make a statement that's certainly going to run roughshod through the streets of New York City.
I like Ottawa's draw against New York. No - I love Ottawa's draw against New York. So much so, I'm picking the Senators to upset the Rangers in the first round of the 2011-2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now, this shouldn't be taken as any slight to what the New York Rangers have accomplished this season or their team as a whole. It's not some kind of fade-pick, one that assumes an elite team over an eighty-two game sample size is simply going to fall off of a cliff come the post-season.
It is, however, an indictment of New York's match-up issues with Ottawa - something that's real, measurable, and quantifiable.
Playoff hockey opens the door to some of the most tiresome cliche in sports journalism, but one notion I've always agreed with is that match-ups can often dictate the fate - for better or worse - of a team. Many will be quick to dismiss Ottawa's three wins in four attempts against New York this year because it was played in the regular season, opining that playoff hockey is a different breed.
That might be so. But, marginalizing victories to that degree is a bit foolish. The games did provide us with a quality sample to work with, and there's some favorable signs in Ottawa's corner.
First, consider Ottawa's two biggest flaws as a team - turnovers and penalties. These two elements of the Senators' game have plagued them to no end for the entire season, and many teams - of both the good and bad variety - have taken full advantage.
There's really no better example than the Boston Bruins, who looked like absolute world-beaters in five of six games v. Ottawa. Reason? Boston's forecheck is absolutely relentless, forcing a sometimes-shaky Ottawa blue line into poor decision after poor decision. Bruins forwards - responsible for 3.2 GPG, 2nd best in the National Hockey League - were more than willing to bury those turnovers into the back of Ottawa's next.
Their second issue, as mentioned above, was an absurd propensity to hit the penalty box. Ottawa's club spent 281:07 on the penalty kill this year, third-most in the National Hockey League. Combine that with the fact that their kill rate was a shade below league-average at 81.6%, and you have another discernible problem.
A lot of the time, these playoff series' are decided by one club's ability to exploit the problem areas of the opposition. For the New York Rangers, taking advantage of Ottawa's turnover issue and high-penalty volume will be key. However, the numbers are not favorable.
While New York plays arguably the most impressive two-way game in hockey, the team as a whole isn't known for their finishing ability. The Rangers did possess a solid attack at 2.7 GPG, but ranked just 20th in the NHL in takeaways at 231. More than drilling the opposition in their defensive third, New York was much more successful at bottling the attack and countering up ice. That's to Ottawa's benefit.
Further, and perhaps most importantly, the New York power play simply isn't good. Ranked 23rd in the NHL at 15.7% - hardly a number you want to tow heading into the playoffs. They're going to have opportunities up a man in this series. The question is, will they be able to convert?
Beyond these two talking points, there's a number of other proverbial flags raised around this series. For instance, how 'bout Henrik Lundqvist's career splits v. the Ottawa Senators? They're the only team in the Eastern Conference with a winning record against him, as he's posted just 11-12-2 splits in twenty-six appearances.
There's no debate that Henrik Lundqvist (39-18-5, .930 save percentage, 1.97 GAA) will be the best goalie on the ice every night. I've argued that Lundqvist's peripherals over the past few years behind a quite-average New York hockey team have solidified him as the NHL's best in the crease, and in this series, he'll be the biggest problem for an Ottawa team looking to pull the upset.
Still, with Craig Anderson(33-22-6, .914 save percentage, 2.84 GAA) in net for Ottawa, is the disparity all that measurable? Anderson's not Lundqvist, but he's also facing a weaker collective atack. If Ottawa can curtail what many deem as a significant advantage the way of New York, the series could turn in their favor.
More to the goaltending: No team in the NHL was more successful than the New York Rangers when out-shooting the opposition, posting an impressive 30-13-1 record through 44 GP. As you might expect with the theme of this blog, the alternative (i.e., Ottawa when being out-shot) is equally strong. The Senators are 24-14-7 when Craig Anderson's facing more shots than the opposition's netminder.
And, how 'bout home ice advantage? The gift of winning your division in the NHL is two-fold; drawing against inferior opponents in round one and beyond, the majority of which tend to struggle on the road. New York's impressive splits at MSG (27-12-2) are second in the Eastern Conference to Pittsburgh. And yet, they're playing an Ottawa team that's just far too comfortable on the road (21-14-6). For a parallel, note that the Senators and Penguins picked up the same amount of points this season away from home ice.
At even-strength, you'd expect quite a disparity between the top-seed and bottom-seed in conference play. The Canucks(1.19) and Kings (0.98) indicate the kind of gap you'd expect. The Rangers(1.14) and Senators(1.05) do not.
Even for those who put stock into intangibles(read: not me), there's no qualified advantage in New York's end. If there's one man who commands as much respect in the locker room as Ryan Callahan, it's Daniel Alfredsson. If there's one team that plays the hustle-and-heart game as well as New York, it's Ottawa.
I'll save the grit
angle for the Sun.
Overall, what you're looking at is a series that really isn't suggestive of the usual gap between a team that challenged for the President's Trophy through game eighty-two and the sixteenth-seeded team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Ottawa's not a great team; New York is. However, when pinned against one another, the peripherals are eerily comparable. No matter how the New York media spins it, the match-up is not a coveted one. If the Rangers are serious about contending for the Stanley Cup, they'll take care of a potentially overachieving and still-youthful Ottawa team that's just happy to be here.
Taking care of business, though, will almost certainly be easier said than done.
I like Ottawa to pull the round one upset.
Full betting analysis of the eight match-ups tomorrow.
Thanks for reading!