Second-round preview: New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

We are surrounded by imperfection. It’s part of what makes the human condition interesting. Maybe that’s why a series like the New York Rangers vs. the Ottawa Senators ends up being so engrossing. Both of these teams are deeply flawed, and the chances of them winning the Cup are slim, but each team confronts and embraces its faults. In fact, this makes them likeable.

The snapshot of both teams is the same: deep at forward, mobile, but also possessing sloppy defensive groups at times, and high-variance goaltenders. Both teams were underwhelming in their possession metrics during the regular season, but they can achieve a flurry of offense through prolific puck movement. The Senators fared better than the Rangers at controlling shot attempts in the first round, but they faced an injured, undermanned Bruins, who were inferior when compared to the Rangers’ opponent: the healthy, Carey-Price-led Canadiens.

For the Rangers, the biggest concern (other than someone wearing No. 65) is the Senators’ speed on the perimeter. Speedsters like Mike Hoffman and Ryan Dzingel, or gifted puck-handlers like Bobby Ryan and Mark Stone, can glide down the wing and buy space, which can draw in the defense. The Senators’ forward can then turn toward the boards and throw the puck back to an Ottawa defenseman for a slap shot. Or the puck-carrier can shoot or pass the puck toward a cutting linemate. The point is that gaining the entry, and jumping into a pocket, and then having options is a bad reality to defend. Aside from Ryan McDonagh, there really isn’t a Blueshirts defenseman with the mobility and gap control to individually cover this danger.

A solution is to support the weak side defender, and Rangers forwards need to maintain tight gaps in transition and box out after the initial shot attempt. There is a danger of the Senators’ forwards getting behind the Rangers’ defense if they are supporting on the pinch along the half-wall or engaging in the forecheck. But the Senators struggled to score all season, and part of that was coach Guy Boucher trying to install better structure. So there is a balance to be struck here.

The Rangers will win if Ottawa is struggling to find an exit ramp in its own zone. Optimally, New York achieves that with two forwards, but if they want to send a third or fourth body to exert a little more heat, that would be a necessary evil. But this is also a call for New York’s forwards to be cognizant that the Senators can be a quick-strike offense. Make them work, force their defensemen to be uncomfortable, but get your butt back and keep an active stick in the passing lanes. After Round one, Henrik Lundqvist has demonstrated that if he can see it, he can stop it.

If the Senators are smart, they will be thinking like Daniel Kahneman – fast and slow. They should be chucking Hail Mary passes to Mike Hoffman and trying to catch the Rangers over the top. Create races, force New York to have their forwards identify their assignment on transition defense. Make Marc Staal, Nick Holden, and Dan Girardi retrieve the puck. The Rangers are prone to slapdash passes in their own zone, and the aforementioned are chronically guilty offenders.

But it also makes sense for Ottawa to slow it down. They don’t want their defenders playing defense, and the best way to do that is to empower them. Erik Karlsson needs no such encouragement, but the Chris Widemans, Cody Cecis, and Marc Methots need to demonstrate patience and identify passing lanes on neutral zone regroups and attack the quiet areas when the Senators push the Rangers’ defense back. Sometimes the threat of a defender attacking is enough to loosen a more skilled forward teammate, so non-Karlsson defensemen should keep this in mind when they have the puck.

The Rangers are basically scoring by committee, which means the best way for Ottawa to deny the playmakers that are spread across their four lines is to erode the connection between defenseman and forward. And that means the Senators’ defensemen jumping stretch passes in the neutral zone and forcing the wingers and center to dip lower than they’d like in their own zone and battle below the goal line. Force the New York forwards to transport the puck over longer distances.

On the cycle, make the Rangers wingers exert themselves trying to track the defensemen at the point. Even if it’s smoke and mirrors, and Methot isn’t really a threat to score, his dive to the backdoor could open up a seam pass for someone else. Just because Ottawa didn’t always succeed at hemming teams in and winning the territorial match doesn’t mean they can’t start now. Some teams can spend long periods of time in the defensive zone and keep their defensive posture. New York is not one of them. Extend offensive-zone time and the Rangers will disarrange.

This series will be deranged and chaotic, a seesaw of emotion. The goaltending on both sides is loaded with uncertainty. But even with Karlsson being the best player on the ice, the Rangers are the more balanced unit.

Rangers in seven

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