New York Hockey: Ottawa Senators

Stepan steps up again in Game 7

April, 26, 2012
Chris Kreider wasn't the only youngster to step up for the Rangers in the team's 2-1 win over the Senators in Game 7 Thursday night. Derek Stepan contributed another impressive performance to cap off a first-round series that started off slow for the 21-year-old center.

Following up on Kreider's terrific play to force a Senators turnover, Stepan made a beautiful pass to find Marc Staal at the left circle and set up the team's crucial first goal at 4:46 of the second.

With the assist, Stepan recorded his fourth point in two games. The second-year pivot finished with a goal and two assists in the Rangers' 3-2 win Monday in Ottawa to avoid elimination and bring the series back home to New York.

"It took him a little while but he has played three good games here now," coach John Tortorella said. "That was very important for us. To have a chance we need someone to get going and it was weighing on him, but he found a way."

With Marian Gaborik disappearing for most of the series, the emergence of Stepan in the latter half has been all the more vital.

Stepan struggled in the first four games of the best-of-seven set against the Senators. But after being held off the scoresheet and demoted to the fourth line, he turned the corner in Game 5.

"I think that was a key point for me in my short playoff career," he said. "I felt Game 5, I was over the puck more. That was a big stepping stone for me as a player."

Stepan earned back Tortorella's trust with that improvement and centered the team's most effective line in the series finale between Kreider and captain Ryan Callahan.

"I really feel he willed himself to get his game going," Tortorella said. "It certainly was very important. That was a great line for us, him, Kreider and Cally."

After 10 straight playoff games without a point, Stepan can take some confidence for himself and the team into Round 2 when they face the Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

"It's a good accomplishment," he said. "It was a good test for us. We don't want to get too high on it, but we want to know we did a good job and learn from it and try to refocus and get ourselves ready for Round 2."

Rapid Reaction: Rangers 2, Senators 1

April, 26, 2012

Recap | Box score | Photos

What it means: In a nail-biter of a Game 7 that lived up to an exciting and evenly matched first-round series, the Rangers held on to outlast the Senators and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 2-1 win at Madison Square Garden.

The Senators cut into the Rangers' 2-0 lead in the second period and threatened a late-game comeback in the third, but the Blueshirts kept a white-knuckle grip on their one-goal lead to advance to Round 2. The Rangers now move on to face the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals.

Rookie rules: In what was his best game as a Ranger so far, rookie Chris Kreider made a spectacular play to set up the game's first goal. Kreider, who signed an entry-level deal with the team just weeks ago, forced Senators forward Nick Foligno to cough the puck up along the boards, creating a rush for the Rangers. Marc Staal then buried a beautiful feed from center Derek Stepan to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead at 4:46 in the second.

Banner night for blue line: The Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the second period with key contributions from defensemen Staal and Dan Girardi. Kreider's hustle play in the neutral zone led to Staal's first goal. Girardi tallied from the slot midway through the period at 9:04.

Captain comes through: In his second game back from a concussion, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson unleashed a blast from the point for a power-play goal to cut the Rangers' lead in half, 2-1 at 11:34 of the second. The man-up marker was his second goal of the playoffs.

Hostile crowd: The Madison Square Garden crowd wasted no time making the visiting team feel its wrath, serenading Senators antagonist Chris Neil with various taunts and jeers. When a bold faction of Ottawa fans tried starting the team's 11-minute-mark chant for Alfredsson, Blueshirts faithful countered back with their own less-friendly variation.

Early chances: The Rangers had a couple of their best chances of the night within the first 5:11 minutes of play but came away scoreless. Senators goaltender Craig Anderson denied Marian Gaborik on a 2-on-1 rush at 2:58. Minutes later, Girardi shot wide when facing an open net with Anderson tangled up with Brandon Prust behind the net.

Up Next: Rangers vs. Capitals, 3 p.m. Saturday at the Garden.

Five ugliest plays of the series (so far)

April, 24, 2012
It's been a brutal and vicious series between the Rangers and Senators through the first six games, and with Game 7 on the line Thursday at Madison Square Garden, we may not have seen the worst yet.

Here are the five ugliest plays of the series so far:

1. Carkner's Boyle beatdown
Enraged by Brian Boyle's seemingly-innocuous tussle with Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson in Game 1, hulking defenseman Matt Carkner went after the Rangers center less than three minutes into Game 2. Carkner attacked Boyle and punched him repeatedly while Boyle was down on the ice in a defenseless position, earning himself a one-game suspension in a vicious game that culminated with Sens brawler Zenon Konopka declaring that there would be plenty of "blood and stitches" before the series was over.

2. Alfredsson concussed
The Senators witnessed a frightening sight with captain Daniel Alfredsson down on the ice face-first after Carl Hagelin's suspension-earning hit in Game 2. The 39-year-old veteran attempted to come back before Game 3 in Ottawa, but suffered a setback that held him out of the lineup until Game 6. Hagelin was slapped with a three-game suspension for the play that forced his fellow Swede from the game.

3. Boyle hit by Neil
The Senators were not the only one to lose a player to concussion. While Ottawa returned Alfredsson to the lineup in Game 6, the Rangers were without Boyle, their series MVP, after Chris Neil's hit in Game 5 left him woozy. The league did not feel the nasty blow met the threshold of a suspension or fine, but coach John Tortorella was fuming after seeing his player felled. Tortorella likened the play to the hit by Phoenix's Raffi Torres that sent Chicago's Marian Hossa off the ice on a stretcher last week. Just hours after Torres was hit with a 25-game suspension, Tortorella suggested the league deliver a similar one to Neil. "They have a blueprint," he said. Neil didn't win any friends after Game 6, either. The gritty winger issued a thinly-veiled threat toward Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto, warning him about retribution for his third-period hit that left Neil slow to get up in the third period of the Sens' 3-2 loss. Neil said, 'I'm sure I'll catch him with his head down one of these times."

4. Controversial Senators goal
The goal itself in the waning moments of Game 6 --suspect both because of the apparent kicking motion and what appeared to be a blatantly missed interference call -- caused controversy, as did goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's colorful tirade after the game. Lundqvist said the ruling was an "absolute joke" and hinted that the league was conspiring to affect the outcome of the game, comments for which he will likely be fined. But the drama didn't end there. The league is also probing an incident during the fracas when Senators winger Milan Michalek apparently kicked Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi with his skate.

5. Alfredsson's meltdown
After sitting out three games with a concussion, Alfredsson's return was not the triumphant comeback for which he hoped. In fact, the mild-mannered Swede suffered an uncharacteristic meltdown in the third period, breaking his stick on the Senators bench and abusing a water bottle in frustration. He expressed remorse for the incident on Tuesday, incidentally the same day he was named as one of three finalists for the NHL's annual Masterton Trophy for good sportsmanship.

Rapid Reaction: Senators 2, Rangers 0

April, 21, 2012
Recap | Box score | Photos

What it means: The odds are now against the Rangers, who suffered a pivotal 2-0 loss at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. Only six teams in the post-lockout era have rebounded to win a series after dropping Game 5.

Ottawa's Craig Anderson was incredible in earning his fourth shutout of the season. En route to his 41-save effort, Anderson blanked the Blueshirts on a turning-point power-play late in the third.

Jason Spezza tallied both goals for Ottawa, including an empty-netter with less than a minute left in regulation. With the Senators now leading the series 3-2, the Rangers head back to Ottawa facing what would be a shattering elimination and stunning upset.

They will have to do so without their series MVP Brian Boyle. The gritty center suffered a concussion from a third-period hit by Ottawa's Chris Neil that will likely be reviewed by NHL's Department of Player Safety.

Rare lead: The played with their first lead of the entire series after Spezza's first-period marker at 9:18. The Senators have trailed the Rangers in regulation in all four of the previous games but rallied twice to beat New York in overtime.

Big jump: Making his NHL debut just weeks after finishing his junior season in the Western Hockey League, Mark Stone didn't seem fazed by being thrown into the fire. The 19-year-old prospect, who finished with 41 goals and 81 assists in 66 games for the Brandon Wheat Kings this season, set up Spezza's first goal of the 2012 playoffs. Stone replaced an injured Jesse Winchester in the lineup.

Tough crowd: The sellout audience at Madison Square Garden ushered the team off the ice with boos after a forgettable first period. The Rangers fell behind 1-0, but elicited the crowd's disgust after their third failed power-play opportunity.

Acting as captain: Taking exception to Colin Greening's hit on Marian Gaborik late in the second period, captain Ryan Callahan went after the Senators forward, drawing a roughing penalty at 17:23. The Rangers bailed out Callahan for his minor with a momentum-mounting penalty-killing effort to close out the period.

Down a man: Despite the emphasis on discipline-- a penalty-riddled Game 4 sapped the team's energy en route to a 3-2 OT loss in Ottawa -- the team spent six minutes of the second period down a man. Before Callahan's roughing minor, the Rangers were forced to kill off penalties to Ruslan Fedotenko (high-sticking) and Mike Rupp (charging).

Paging Shanahan: The league will likely review Chris Neil's third-period hit on center Brian Boyle that left the Rangers center slow to get up. Boyle played one shift on the penalty kill following the hit but was ruled "out" with a concussion after the game.

Up Next: Game 6: Rangers at Senators, 7 p.m. Monday.

Hagelin suspension impact

April, 20, 2012
After two games without spark-plug forward Carl Hagelin we may be starting to see some of the impact of his absence. Without the speedy wing, who has been a catalyst for the New York Rangers top line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the Blueshirts have seemingly been less effective of the forecheck, a strength that has predicated much of the Rangers' success this season.

In Hagelin's place the Rangers have dressed recently-signed rookie Chris Kreider and early on slotted him alongside Richards and Gaborik on the top line. So how has the rook measured up to the "veteran" Hagelin? Here's a look at their head-to-head production this series.

Kreider may not have been quite the factor that Hagelin was in Games 1 and 2, but he also hasn't seen the same ice-time that Hagelin enjoyed, skating a scant 3:29 in Game 4. With that in mind, it's not quite accurate to say that Kreider has "replaced" Hagelin. Instead, Hagelin's minutes have been dispersed throughout the Ranger lineup, with Brandon Prust seeing a particularly significant spike in playing time, going from just over 8 minutes in Game 1 to a high of 17:11 in Game 4. So, how has Prust fared since Hagelin's suspension?

The biggest different is that while Hagelin was even in scoring chances for/against (again, thanks to the 6th Sens for the scoring chance data), Prust is in the red by more than a 2-to-1 margin (9 to 19). To be fair, some of those chances have come on the PK, as noted in the chart, but still it seems the Senators are seeing a decided advantage when Prust is on the ice.

Absent an offensive catalyst and with the Rangers seeing the ice sloped against them with Prust on the ice, it seems evident that Hagelin's suspension has definitely detracted from the Rangers' performance this series.

Tide turning in Rangers-Sens series?

April, 17, 2012
Following the New York Rangers' 1-0 victory over his Ottawa Senators, Sens bench boss Paul MacLean indicated he was very happy with the effort his team turned in, even if it didn't earn the desired result.

For the game, Ottawa outshot New York by a whopping 16 shots (39-23) and it was clear to most that Vezina Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist was the difference maker, proving his priceless value with a stellar shut-out performance for the Blueshirts. But while the Rangers now lead the series 2 games to 1, there's a disturbing trend emerging in New York's defensive end.

For the past two games the Rangers have been out-chanced by the Senators, meaning New York is yielding more high-quality shots to their foe than the Rangers are generating for themselves. Take a gander and the scoring chances as recorded by Senators blog The 6th Sens:

If you'll recall from an earlier post, a scoring chance is a shot directed towards the goal from the area that extends from the goalposts to the faceoff dots and up to the top of the circles. This is a stat that NHL teams track religiously and put a lot of faith in since a shot from 60 feet out that floats into a goalie's chest (which counts as a shot on goal) isn't the same as a wrist shot from the slot.

Even more alarming than the increasing shots on goal disparity is the rising number of quality shots against the Rangers. In Game 1, just under 30 percent of the Sens' shots toward goal came from the high-quality scoring area. In Game 3, that number rose to 38 percent with an additional eight scoring chances. Fortunately for the Blueshirts, Lundqvist was able to fend off the attack, but it's something the Rangers must address to prevail in this series. Sustaining a barrage like the one seen in Game 3 isn't a recipe for success against the NHL's fourth-best offense during the regular season.

Video: Fists and elbows flying

April, 15, 2012
PM ET's Katie Strang analyzes the aftermath of Saturday night's brutal Game 2 between the Rangers and Ottawa Senators. Old-time hockey, eh?

Rapid Reaction: Senators 3, Rangers 2 (OT)

April, 14, 2012

Recap | Box score | Photos

What it means: Chris Neil's overtime goal at 1:17 gave the Senators a 3-2 win over the Rangers, splitting the series 1-1 as the teams head back to Ottawa for Games 3 and 4.

In a nasty and chaotic Game 2, Ottawa surged back with Nick Foligno's game-tying goal late in the third to shock the Garden crowd and set the stage for a Sens comeback. Ottawa prevailed in overtime even without captain Daniel Alfredsson, who left the game after a high hit from Rangers rookie Carl Hagelin in the second period and did not return.

Wild one: Senators defenseman Matt Carkner and Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky were ejected from the game less than three minutes into play after a wild melee erupted between the two teams.

Carkner went after Brian Boyle, delivering a barrage of blows while the 6-6 center was down on the ice, to earn a game misconduct. Although the Rangers came away from the attack with a five-minute power-play they lost Dubinsky in the trade. The gritty forward jumped in to help Boyle in the brawl but was assessed a match penalty for being the third man in a fight. Dubinsky was seething over the call and overturned a water cooler as he left the ice for the Rangers dressing room.

Target on Boyle: Clearly upset that Boyle roughed up Ottawa's top defenseman Erik Karlsson in Game 1, the Senators continued to target the big man as the game progressed. Challenged by Neil, Boyle dropped the gloves at 8:17 of the first.

Bounce-back: After being pummeled on the ice less than three minutes into play, Boyle packed a punch of his own with his second goal of the series to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead at 2:41 of the third.

Stralman scores: Blanked on the initial five-minute power-play, the Rangers tallied a man-up goal later in the first. Defenseman Anton Stralman unleashed a slap shot from the right circle that trickled past Craig Anderson for a 1-0 Rangers lead at 10:11.

Swede on Swede: The ugliness continued in the middle frame as Hagelin was slapped with a five-minute elbowing major following his high hit Alfredsson. Ottawa's Jared Cowen and Nick Foligno went after the Rangers rookie, while Alfredsson skated off to the Senators dressing room and did not return to the game.

Tie game: The Senators caught a break on the five-minute power-play that resulted from Hagelin's penalty. Karlsson threw the puck on net from the goal line and bounced in the tying goal off Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto's skate to knot the teams at 1 at 13:50 of the second.

Up next: Rangers at Senators, 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Hagelin knocks Sens' captain from game

April, 14, 2012
NEW YORK -- In a vicious playoff match between the Rangers and Senators, Ottawa lost captain Daniel Alfredsson after a high hit from New York's Carl Hagelin in the second period.

Alfredsson crumpled to the ice after taking Hagelin's elbow to the helmet and crashing into the end-boards at 10:32 and did not return. Hagelin was slapped with a five-minute elbowing major after forcing his fellow Swede from the game.

Alfredsson missed time earlier this season with a concussion after a questionable hit from then-Ranger Wojtek Wolski in the teams' first meeting Oct. 29.

Hagelin could be facing supplementary discipline for the penalty.

Earlier in the game, Senators defenseman Matt Carkner and Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky were ejected for their roles in a heated brawl 2:15 into play.

Rangers D stout, smart in Game 1 win

April, 13, 2012
When you're battling the team that finished fourth in the league in goal scoring, as the Ottawa Senators did, you know that keeping the puck out of the net will be a challenge. Fortunately for the New York Rangers -- the NHL's third-best defensive team at 2.22 goals-allowed per game -- that's something of a specialty.

While the Blueshirts may have struggled in this regard vs. the Sens during the regular season, they were pretty stingy during Game 1 at the Garden Thursday night.

"This team knows how to defend, knows how to play hard," Rangers center Brian Boyle said. "We're out there blocking shots. Just the same old story."

When coaches and players refer to scoring chances they're talking about shots directed towards the net inside of a home-plate shaped area that extends from the goalmouth diagonally to the faceoff dots and up to the top of the circles. According to Blueshirt Banter contributor George E. Ays, who tracks scoring chances for and against the Rangers, New York out-chanced Ottawa 16-9 for the game.

"Overall I think it was pretty good [limiting the quality of the Sens scoring chances]," defenseman Dan Girardi said. "It's hard to remember every play of the game, but I thought for the most part we did a good job on them. The second period they had some chances, but in a playoff series you're not going to play a perfect game, play in their end the whole time. But for the most part I thought we defended well and kept them to the outside."

With savvy-passing blueliners like Erik Karlsson feeding speedy forwards like Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, the Sens can burn you with their transition game, but the Rangers maintained some solid discipline all night and in fact got the better of the odd-man chances. By my count from the press box, the Blueshirts enjoyed a 4-1 edge in odd-man rushes for the game, with that one Ottawa opportunity coming when Spezza barely snuck behind the D to take a pass at the Ranger blue line and skated in for a (contested) shot on goal.

"With us [defensemen] it's defense first and we let the offense take care of itself," Girardi said. "Especially with a line like Spezza's you really want to make sure you're on the right side of the puck."

"We did a really good job about not getting hurt," Rangers head coach John Tortorella said after the game. "They weren't hurting us with scoring chances, they were just hurting us with puck possession." That seemed to lead to an inordinate amount of icing calls against the Rangers, but the Blueshirts endured those as well.

The Sens' second goal did come from an odd-man situation (though since it resulted more from a Ranger miscue in their own zone than off the rush I didn't count it above). Marc Staal tried to make a play on a loose puck at the top of the zone but couldn't get there in time, opening things up for Nick Foligno and Erik Condra to make it a 4-2 game. It was one of the few slip-ups seen all night.

"We had a couple break downs here and there, but we're not going to worry about that too much," Girardi said. "We're going to take the good stuff and try to correct the bad."

Rapid Reaction: Rangers 4, Senators 2

April, 12, 2012

Recap | Box score | Photos

What it means: Unlike the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers proved they can hold on to a big lead. After captain Ryan Callahan's first-period marker, the Rangers tallied two more in the second to bury the Senators in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

With the Rangers leading 1-0 midway through the second, coach John Tortorella called a pivotal timeout after which the top-seeded Blueshirts rattled off three straight goals. Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson spoiled Henrik Lundqvist's shutout bid in the third, but the star goaltender surrendered only two goals on 32 shots. The Rangers now take a 1-0 lead in the series heading into Game 2 at home on Saturday.

Captain comeback: The Rangers were without Callahan for last year's first-round matchup against the Capitals, but the 27-year-old captain marked his postseason return with the game's first goal. Burying Anton Stralman's rebound, Callahan slid a sharp-angle shot behind Craig Anderson for a 1-0 Rangers lead at 12:01 of the first.

Key timeout: With the Senators gaining traction in the second period, Rangers coach John Tortorella used his timeout with 10:09 left to settle down his troops. Whether it was the brief breather or something he said, it worked. The team rattled off a pair of goals to take a 3-0 lead and outshot the Senators 8-2 for the remainder of the period.

Goal for Gaborik: While Garden faithful was taunting the officials for a tandem of bad calls, sniper Marian Gaborik rectified the situation with his first goal of the playoffs. The three-time 40-goal scorer drove to the net and beat Anderson five-hole for a 2-0 Rangers lead at 16:26 of the second.

Going for jugular: With a 2-0 lead late in the seconds, Brian Boyle gave the Rangers a huge boost with his sixth goal in eight games, snapping a shot from the slot past Anderson for a three-goal lead with less than a minute remaining in the middle frame.

Piling on: Carl Hagelin's strong forechecking effort led to the Rangers fourth goal. The rookie winger hounded the puck behind Ottawa's net, allowing Brad Richards to bury the team's fourth goal of the game. The 31-year-old center has 22 career playoff goals.

Waiting game: Although top prospect Chris Kreider signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the team on Tuesday, the Rangers are not rushing the 20-year-old winger into the lineup. Kreider, who opted to forgo his senior season at Boston College to turn pro, watched the game from the owner's box with fellow scratches John Scott, Jeff Woywitka and Steve Eminger.

Odds against Rangers in Round 1?

April, 11, 2012
Anyone who watched the season series unfold between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators knows the Sens are not exactly pushovers. Outscoring the Rangers 13-8 en route to a 3-1-0 record vs. the Blueshirts, the Senators certainly seem like they could be a formidable foe as the playoffs get rolling Thursday at the Garden. But could the odds actually be in Ottawa's favor?

Based on win expectation, a theory put forward by baseball stats guru Bill James, the No. 8 seed appears to have a disproportionately good chance against the No. 1 team in the East when you look at how both teams have played down the stretch.

As explained by ESPN Insider's Neil Greenberg in a Wednesday article (Caution! Math ahead.):

"You need to be healthy and firing on all cylinders going into the playoffs so that you can peak at the right time. But even more important is how a team has outscored opponents in its past 35 games ...

"[Bill James] noted that a baseball team's true strength could largely be determined more accurately by looking at runs scored and runs allowed than by looking at wins and losses. To be more specific, he found that one can predict future win-loss records more accurately using only past runs scored and runs allowed, as opposed to using only past wins and losses. The same can be said for hockey using goals for and goals against. Here is the formula, known as the Pythagorean win expectation: Goals for squared divided by (goals for squared + goals against squared)."

Apply that to the Rangers-Sens series and you'll see the following, as Greenberg notes:

"Ottawa has been the better team in the past 35 games. The Senators have tallied 91 goals while giving up 80, while New York has just a plus-4 goal differential (90 GF-86 GA). That makes the Senators a slight favorite and gives them an edge during the series even though New York has home-ice advantage."

Now, there's a reason the Rangers finished the regular season atop the Eastern Conference standings. The scientific term for that reason is "they're pretty frickin' good." And in terms of the stakes of those final 35 games, the Senators have clearly had more to play for than the Rangers have, so perhaps New York's effort level wasn't where it will be when the puck drops Thursday. Still, in a seven-game series funny things can happen, even to top teams. (Paging the Washington Capitals. Mr. Ovechkin to the tee box, please.)

If they want to stick around in the postseason, the Blueshirts should not take the Sens lightly, and it probably wouldn't hurt for them to improve on their recent level of play.

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Who's hot?

April, 8, 2012
If I had a nickel for every time I've heard playoff prognosticators discuss the importance of a team entering the playoffs on a hot streak, well, I probably wouldn't be staring down a microwave burrito for lunch right now. In any sport, people place a lot of emphasis on team's "peaking at the right time." New York fans only need to dial back to this past winter to recall sports soothsayers uttering as much about the New York Giants. And we all know how that played out.

So, who's hot in hockey? Here's a quick look at the Eastern Conference over the last 11 games (I added an extra game to help account for some teams resting stars in the stretch run) to see how the first-round series stack up.

Above you can really see the importance of the Rangers finishing first overall in the East. Not only do they get to face Ottawa -- one of just two teams with a negative goal differential over the last 11 games, not to mention a team that's lost three in a row -- but due to the NHL's re-seeding rules, a Rangers win in the first round could likely set up a meeting with the New Jersey Devils instead of the Philadelphia Flyers or the smoking-hot Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2. Not to mention, the No. 1 seed assures the Rangers they won't meet the Boston Bruins -- who seem to have entered into the same late-season beast mode that carried them to the 2011 Stanley Cup -- until the Eastern Conference Finals.

But let's jump back a step. Why do I think there could be an upset in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 game?

Thanks to a win by the Florida Panthers in their regular season finale, the Devils get to play the other team with a negative goal differential, ironically a Division champ, instead of the Washington Capitals. Averaging just two goals per game over their last 11 contests, the Panthers aren't going to inspire too much fear in anyone with their recent play. And that's particularly true given their heavy reliance on OT losses just to make the postseason field.

While certainly nothing is guaranteed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a look at this simple heat index says the odds could be downright decent for a Rangers-Devils postseason grudge match.

Paging Stephane Matteau ...

Focusing on Rangers' first-round foes

March, 30, 2012
We know the Rangers are now locked into a playoff spot. We know their 105 points lead the NHL and give the Blueshirts a 5-point edge on the Pittsburgh Penguins with just five games remaining in New York’s season. We know that five more points will secure the No. 1 seed in the East for the playoffs.

What we don’t know is whether the No. 1 overall seed would produce the most favorable first-round matchup for the Rangers.

Based on this season’s head-to-head meetings, you don’t see the kind of lopsided results you’d expect in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 series. Here’s a look at how the Rangers have fared against the three most likely No. 8 seeds in the East.

Obviously this is only a very basic overview, but a plus-1 goal differential doesn’t really seem to signal a walkover first-round matchup. Not to mention the fact that the Sabres have been red-hot of late and have a far better goalie than either the Sens or Caps could boast.

But the above chart assumes the Rangers will claim the top seed. What if they were to be passed by the Pens or -- far less likely -- the Philadelphia Flyers? How would the Blueshirts stack up in a No. 4-5 matchup instead?

This season the Flyers have been the bug to the Rangers’ windshield. At every turn it feels like the Blueshirts have outplayed the boys from Broad Street and these numbers seem to suggest more of the same in the postseason. Or do they?

It was just a year ago that New York completely dominated Washington during the regular season. But the Rangers’ 3-1-0 record and plus-11 differential over the Caps didn’t mean much when Alex Ovechkin and Co. easily discarded the Blueshirts in the first round.

With that in mind, you can start to see why NHL coaches don’t really worry about who they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs. In short, it’s an entirely different game. Injuries (like Ryan Callahan’s unavailability last season) and momentum can mean far more than a random game played in January. What might be more significant is home ice, particularly when it comes to a potential series against the Caps, Sabres or Pens. Respectively, those teams are nine, seven and six regulation losses worse on the road than when they skate in their home barn.

Grabbing the No. 1 seed and home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs could be a big boost for the Rangers. And thanks to the help of the rival New York Islanders taking down the Pens, that outcome is looking more and more likely.

W2W4: Senators vs. Rangers

March, 24, 2011
For those that missed it, there’s a great quote at the end of Scott Burnside’s blog post today from Rangers assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld about resting players for the playoffs.

"We don't even allow ourselves to go there," Schoenfeld said. "We still have a lot of points on the table. There's a lot that can happen. We tell our players, 'You can't exhale.'"

So consider the Rangers ready to welcome cellar-dwelling Ottawa tonight with all the stars they have at their disposal, red-faced and blue-sweatered. Here’s what to watch for the when the puck drops at the Garden.

Staal Progress

After missing the past two games with an undisclosed injury, top D-man Marc Staal will be back in the lineup tonight, according to Matt Ehalt.

How effective will the shutdown blueliner be in his first game back? He should be able to ease into the routine against the Senators. Ottawa ranks second-to-last in the league in scoring with just 2.27 goals per game. They’ve been a little hotter lately though, scoring 14 goals in their past five games.

Lundqvist Keeps Tickin’

You can’t argue with results and Henrik Lundqvist has been sterling, posting his 10th shutout Tuesday against the Florida Panthers. It’s impressive that the stopper has been able to stay strong after what seems like 82 consecutive starts. With no off days in sight until the Rangers clinch a playoff spot (at least not judging by that quote), Lundqvist may have some extra incentive to stay sharp. The sooner they win that playoff berth, the sooner he can take a breather.

High Flyin’ Ryan

Ryan Callahan has been explosive in the month of March. Now apparently fully healed from the broken hand he suffered in mid-December, the Rangers winger has been torching opponents since the end of February. Since March 1, Callahan has notched a team-best seven goals and 15 points. His effort, as always, has been appreciated by Rangers fans ... and the fantasy hockey owner of Don Cherry’s Fashion Consiliaris, who is embroiled in the playoffs right now.