- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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At a glance: With the playoffs already off to a thrilling start thanks to a remarkable Penguins-Flyers match Wednesday night, the first-place Rangers open the Eastern Conference quarterfinals playing host to the eighth-seed Senators in Game 1 Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Both teams are eager to put their end-of-season skids behind them and start anew in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Rangers enter the first round as clear favorites, but the Senators have surprised people all year, securing a playoff berth after 2010-11’s dreadful 26th place finish.
He’s got the edge: Although the Rangers have the undeniable edge in net with Vezina front-runner Henrik Lundqvist in net, it should be noted that Senators netminder Craig Anderson has had success against the Rangers over the course of his career. The 30-year-old goaltender is 7-3-1 in 11 games against the Rangers with a staggering 1.87 goals against average and .941 save percentage.
Top trio: Although the Senators have only three players that finished with 20 goals or more, it’s a formidable trio. Jason Spezza, captain Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek combined for 96 regular season goals and more than half (30) of the team’s 49 power-play goals.
One to watch: Beyond the Senators dangerous top three forwards, they also boast a menacing threat on their back end with standout defenseman Erik Karlsson. The 21-year-old Swede blasted all other blue-liners out of the water with a whopping 19 goals and 78 points in his third season with the Senators. However, this is his first playoff series. Is he a player that will rise to the challenge or one that will wilt under the spotlight? Game 1 should be a fine test.
Special teams: The Rangers’ ailing power-play has turned around, showing life after an anemic performance for most of the season. The unit has recorded eight power-play goals in the last six games of the season and boasts a 23.2% since March 11. They’ll need to be firing on all cylinders in this best-of-seven set against the Sens, especially considering Ottawa’s potent power-play. Conversely, discipline will be a point of emphasis with the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers.
Bottom line: Ottawa took three of four games from the Rangers already this season, but both teams know it’s a new game now that the playoffs have begun. Said Alfredsson. “I think everybody realizes it’s a new season. Everyone starts fresh.”