Rangers prepare for Sens in first-round match-up

Starting at the top with head coach John Tortorella, the Rangers have been an introspective bunch: loathe to discuss opponents, reluctant to divulge game-planning and determined to keep the focus wrangled inward.

That will persist when the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin this week, but the Rangers’ already have a keen eye on their first-round opponents.

“First of all, it’s about us,” alternate captain and former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards said. “We’re going to have to play our game and bring it up another level as the series goes. Probably each game, another level. And then if we get that right, we’ll worry about what they present.”

After dropping three games to them already this season, the first-place Rangers have a good idea of what they will face in the eighth-seeded Senators. The two teams will square off in the Game One of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

What makes the Senators a dangerous first-round foe?

“Obviously, a great power-play so we’ll have to be disciplined," Richards said. "And, they can score goals, so we’re going to have defensive awareness in closing them out. Not giving them time and space is going to be very important.”

Although the Senators boast only three players who have scored twenty goals or more, their top three of Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza, and captain Daniel Alfredsson combined for 96 goals in the regular season. They also boast standout defenseman Erik Karlsson, who lapped the competition in scoring among defenseman, with a league-leading 78 points.

Even without a ton of balance, the Senators stunning turnaround from last season’s 26th place finish was fueled by their impressive offensive firepower. The Senators finished the regular season fourth in the league with 2.96 goals per game.

“Their top players, a lot of times, are the difference for them,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “We’ve got to play them hard, can’t give them too much respect or too much room. We have to make it really tough on them.”

Michalek, Spezza, Alfredsson and Karlsson also account for 30 of the team’s man-up goals, so neutralizing the team’s threatening top four will pay dividends as well for the Rangers.

“Biggest thing for us is to be disciplined going in. You look at their power-play and how dangerous some of their weapons are and, especially in the playoffs, specialty teams wins and loses hockey games for you,” said Brandon Dubinsky. “I think we’ve got to go in there and play our same physical, in-your-face brand of hockey, but we’ve got to make sure to do it within the rules and stay out of the box, because that’s where they can hurt us.”

With three days until the two teams kick off, the Rangers’ coaching staff will spend ample time preparing for the Senators to ready the club for a best-of-seven series that can swing with the slightest advantage.

“They know how we play, we know how they play. It’s trying to exploit certain areas and tendencies of their game, which will be difficult because I’m sure they’ll be ready to play,” Tortorella said. “It comes down to momentum swings and big plays – big saves, big defensive plays, a big blocked shot, a big offensive play, a big face-off. That’s what changes series. That’s what changes games and we’re hoping we’re on the right side of those.”

Notes: Both Marian Gaborik (flu) and Ryan Callahan (personal reasons) did not practice Monday, although neither player is expected to miss Game 1.