NHL Playoffs 2012: Rangers-Senators Preview

The New York Rangers begin their quest for their fifth Stanley Cup on Thursday when they kick off the first-round series with the Ottawa Senators.

Just because the Sens are the eighth seed, doesn't mean they should be taken easily. Ottawa earned points in three of the four games versus the Rangers this season, winning three of the four, including once in a shootout. Altogether, New York was outscored 13-8.

Over the course of the season, the Rangers were actually an inferior offense, putting up 226 goals (11th in the league) to the Senators' 249 (fourth). On the forward side, the Senators are led by center Jason Spezza, who tallied 84 points this season, 24 on the power play, Milan Michalek (35 goals, 60 points) and Daniel Alfredsson (27 and 32). The team's most valuable player, though, may be defenseman Erik Karlsson, who ranked second on the team and led all blueliners with an extraordinary 78 points, 59 of which were assists. He had 28 points on the power play.

Defense Key 1: Beyond keeping the Sens' top trio in check, the Rangers need to find a way to limit Karlsson's play-making ability. His ability to get shots through and create offense stretches the defense and allows the other forwards to get good looks. A big key to this series will be limiting his creative space and blocking his shots from the point. The Rangers are one of the league's top shot-blocking teams and that sort of sacrifice -- along with physicality -- will be needed in this series.

Defense Key 2: Ottawa has a pretty good power play, 11th in the league, but regardless, you never want to give away any sort of advantage in any game, let alone series. One power play could lead to one goal that leads to one win that changes the complexion of the series. The Rangers finished fifth in the league in penalty killing, and it's something that will need to continue to shine during this series.

The Rangers are led by their big-money forwards, Marian Gaborik (41 goals, 76 points) and Brad Richards (25, 66). But their identity is shown through their captain, Ryan Callahan, who notched a career-high 29 goals and 54 points.

Offense Key 1: Obviously, no team is going to survive a playoff series without its best players performing, so Gaborik's continued scoring success and Richards' end-of-the-season play and playoff success will be crucial. New York needs its secondary scorers -- Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Brian Boyle -- to produce. That has been an issue all season and is a reason why there is debate about newly-signed Boston College forward Chris Kreider joining the lineup as he's a big body with legitimate scoring ability.

Offense Key 2: Ottawa is not a very good penalty-killing team (20th in the league), and New York isn't very good with the man advantage at 23rd. The Sens have gone shorthanded the third-most times in the league, so the Rangers will have their opportunity on the power play. While the season-ending numbers don't look good, the fact they scored eight power-play goals over their last six games is promising and something they need to build off of.

The biggest difference in this series is each team's defense and who the teams put between the pipes. New York finished the year with a plus-39 goal differential, while Ottawa was only plus-nine. Despite scoring 23 more goals, it allowed 53 more than the Rangers. With a 39-18-5 record, 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, Henrik Lundqvist is a frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy. The Sens' Craig Anderson has been solid, but with a 33-22-6 record, 2.83 GAA and .914 SV%, his inconsistency is apparent. In order for the Sens to extend this series, they'll need Anderson to carry them and avoid the dips that have plagued his season (and his career). Of course, the Rangers need Lundqvist (15-20, 2.60 GAA, .909 SV%) to perform better than he has in past postseasons too.

Here's all at the schedule and TV coverage for this series:

Thursday, April 12 7 p.m. Ottawa at Rangers NHL Network, CBC
Saturday, April 14 7 p.m. Ottawa at Rangers NBC Sports Network, CBC
Monday, April 16 7:30 p.m. Rangers at Ottawa CBC, CNBC
Wednesday, April 18 7:30 p.m. Rangers at Ottawa CBC, CNBC
*Saturday, April 21 7 p.m. Ottawa at Rangers NBC Sports Network, CBC
*Monday, April 23 TBD Rangers at Ottawa TBD
*Thursday, April 26 TBD Ottawa at Rangers TBD

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