With the resilient New York Rangers clinching the Eastern Conference title and the surprising Ottawa Senators securing a playoff berth following last year's dreadful 26th-place finish, both teams have already surpassed expectations this season.
Can they deliver a series that follows suit?
Squandering the opportunity to lock up the team's first Presidents'
Trophy since the 1993-94 Stanley Cup-winning season, the Rangers enter the playoffs with two straight losses against an undesirable opponent in the eighth-seeded Senators. Ottawa took three out of four games against New York and earned a point in each game. Neither team, however, is surging into the playoffs on a successful streak.
Like the Rangers, the Senators enter Thursday's Game 1 on a skid of their own. Their 4-2 loss to New Jersey in Saturday's finale was their third straight and the team's middling play earned them a
4-6-0 record over the last 10 games that has the Ottawa faithful concerned.
The Rangers rebounded after a late-season dip in March, but never seemed to fully regain their momentum while being chased in the standings the last six weeks of the season. Following Saturday's disappointing 4-1 loss to the Capitals, they hope to start anew.
"It's been a fun year," goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said following Saturday's season finale, "but I hope -- and everyone else hopes -- that the best is yet to come."
1. Henrik Lundqvist:
The 30-year-old goaltender claimed the Rangers'
end-of-season award as MVP, and deservedly so.
Lundqvist has been the catalyst to the team's ascent to the top of the Eastern Conference standings and his play will be vital to the Rangers'
playoff hopes. The remarkably steady Swede has struggled against the Senators this season, however, giving up nine goals in three games.
2. Depth Test: Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing both the Rangers and Senators heading into postseason play is their questionable level of depth. While Ottawa's top three forwards of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek have combined for 96 goals, they are the only players on the team to reach the 20-goal benchmark. The Rangers' top line of Carl Hagelin, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik is a formidable trio, but the Rangers have struggled for secondary scoring this season as well.
3. Ottawa's Young Guns:
Ottawa boasts some of the brightest young stars in the league, particularly standout defenseman Erik Karlsson. The 21-year-old Norris Trophy candidate scorched his fellow blueliners with a league-leading 78 points (19 goals, 59 assists), but how will he fare come playoff time? Senators coach Paul MacLean acknowledged Karlsson will certainly be a target. As the season has gone on, opposing teams have tried to focus on neutralizing Karlsson's impact.
The biggest thing for Karlsson in the playoffs will be "to keep the game simple," MacLean said.
"Take what they give you and be ready to go, be ready to jump." The Senators also hope center Kyle Turris can become a key contributor.
4. Big-Game Brad:
Marquee free-agent acquisition Brad Richards'
numbers (25 goals and 41 assists in 82 games) won't knock your socks off, but his value has been evident in his ability to step up in important situations. The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, who inked a nine-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers last July, tied with team captain Ryan Callahan for fourth in the league with nine game-winning goals.
5. Captain Alfredsson:
Since securing a spot in the postseason, MacLean has lauded the leadership of Alfredsson, but could this be the last season of the captain's 15-year tenure with Ottawa? The 39-year-old Swede has shown that he has plenty left in the tank with 27 goals and 32 assists in 75 games this season, and is a proven playoff threat. If this is his last postseason appearance, can he make it one to remember?
• Henrik Lundqvist vs. Craig Anderson:
With an assumed Vezina Trophy candidate between the pipes on one end of the ice, the Rangers have the clear advantage in goal. Lundqvist has delivered probably his finest season to date with a career-high 39 wins, and an impressive .930 save percentage and 1.93 goals-against average. If the Senators stand a chance, they'll need Anderson (33-22-6, .914,
2.83) to step up.
• Brad Richards: For the power play to keep rolling, the Rangers will need Richards to perform. When the dynamic center is playing at his peak, his creativity and vision boost the entire unit. Seven of his 25 goals this season have come on the power play. Although the long-suffering unit has shown life of late -- with eight man-advantage goals in the last six games of the regular season -- the Rangers' power play (23rd, 15.7 percent) has otherwise struggled consistently throughout their successful 2011-12 season. The team has prevailed in spite of its Achilles' heel, however, and if history is any indication, a troubling power play doesn't necessarily have to be a deal-breaker. The defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins converted only 10 of 88 opportunities for a sobering 11.4 percent. Didn't seem to hurt them too much.
• Milan Michalek:
Michalek got off to a surging start for the Senators and finished with a team-leading 35 goals, but cooled off in the last month of the season. Following a hat trick against Tampa on March 6, the 27-year-old Czech native recorded only three goals in the last 14 games of the season. If the Senators want to pull off a surprising series win against the dominant Rangers, his return to a steady scoring clip will be essential.
• Don't expect the Blueshirts to breeze past this Ottawa team. The Senators will give the Rangers plenty of trouble in the first round, but in a test of depth for both teams, New York will wear them down to prevent the upset. Rangers in 7.
ESPN.com's Scott Burnside contributed to this report.