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Can Senators Veto Blueshirts' Cup Bid? The Maven Says Nay!

Any Rangers fan can tell you that neither he nor she requires Yogi Berra's Book of Bromides to understand that, when it comes to theplayoffs, "Nothing is in the bag until it's IN the bag."

As a matter of fact, I believe that The Maven, himself, coined that line -- or was it John Tortorella? -- some time in the last century.

But what we're more interested in is the here and now or, to be more specific, the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal between Ottawa and the Rangers which opens on Thursday night at The Garden.

Some citizens of Rangerville are concerned; a couple of Ottawa hockey writers already have the not-so-hotsy-totsy Senators winning the series. What's going on here?

Not to worry.  Let me assert without equivocation that this is a series that the Blueshirts are good enough to win in five games based on the manner in which they played the 82-game season. But there is a big HOWEVER -- call it an asterisk -- here.

The Rangers will win in five provided that we see the team that dominated the Eastern Conference and not the one which closed the season looking like an un-reasonable facsimile of a juggernaut. Or, to put it another way; appearing more "naut" than "jugger."

The Rangers who I expect to conquer Canada's Eastern NHL entry is the team which completed the regular season war of attrition with 51 wins, ten more than the Senators; and with 17 more points than Ottawa.

To be more specific, New York boasts a better goaltender -- Henrik Lundqvist over Craig Anderson -- and a better coach -- Torts over the rookie Paul MacLean. "We've all bought into Torts' system," says Marian Gaborik. "That's why we led our Conference."

While upstart Ottawa deserves full marks for even making the playoffs -- most analysts last Fall figured the Senators for bottom-feeders -- the Rangers regard themselves as a team of destiny although I prefer calling them a team of chemistry.

The Seventh Avenue skaters have bonded under Torts tenets better than any sextet that I've seen since the Brooklyn Americans finished seventh in the seven-team 1941-1942 NHL. The Rangers believe in The Coach and the feeling is mutual. What's more, Johnny Coach has excellent officers in his brigade ready, willing and able to push the troops.

Is there a better, more worthy wearer of the "C" than Ryan Callahan who inspires by will and deed? Or a more solidified defense anchored by Dan Girardi -- a worthy Norris Trophy candidate who won't win it -- and Ryan McDonagh? Answer: nay!

Granted that the Blueshirts lack a Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin combo but it's significant that New York's goal differential (226-187) comes out to a Plus-39 whereas Ottawa's (249-240) is a mere Plus-9. Thus, the Rangers come out a fat Plus 30 over the Senators in this meaningful bit of mathematics.

Torts' gunnery is well-balanced. Callahan,  Gaborik, Brad Richards, Derek Stepan and Brandon Dubinsky bring an assortment of weapons to the fray but the beauty part is in the balance. A fourth line comprised of any one among Michael Rupp, John Mitchell and Brandon Prust is more than MacLean can match and, in the crunch, that element could be as decisive as any.

No team enters the post-season totally injury-free and the Blueshirts are no exception. Thus, once-top defender, 6-3, 220-pound Michael Sauer, will be conspicuous by his absence; particularly since the St.Cloud, Minnesota product had his gears mesh so perfectly with McDonagh when they played as a unit.

The other iffy situation on the blue line centers on Marc Staal, the erstwhile 247-game ironman, who spent a serious section of the season recovering from a concussion. Upon his return, the Thunder Bay, Ontario Staal-wart required time to acclimatize himself to the up-temp game. The best-case scenario would be for Staal to find mint condition once the playoff puck is dropped.

The Rangers will also need to stay healthy. Assuming prospect Chris Kreider is not signed for the playoff roster, John Scott is the lone Ranger reserve on offense. On the other hand, moving Kreider into the lineup could add magic to the attack.

Then again, there's good reason to insist that this series is not in the bag because the arithmetic and physics say so. The Rangers won only one of their four meetings with Ottawa this season, and have struggled with quick transition teams. But this should be no issue for Torts & Co. over the course of a seven-game series. The Rangers have not lost more than three straight games all season.

How will the speedy Senators be beaten? The successful strategy starts with the club's heavy forechecking system.

The likes of Brian Boyle, Prust, and Dubinsky will be the harassing dive bombers destined to pin the Senators in their end of the rink. The Grind inevitably will produce scoring from  "dirty" areas
while containing the likes of gifted Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza. The trick will be preventing Karlsson and Spezza from getting speed through the neutral zone. But let's not kid ourselves, the Senators deserve respect because they gained a playoff berth on merit and talent

Under MacLean's savvy tutelage, Karlsson enjoyed a breakout season that could win him the Norris Trophy. Likewise Spezza surfaced as an elite scorer along with Milan Michalek and the evergreen captain Daniel Alfredsson. It will be on the shoulders of these players, and especially goaltender Anderson, to push the Sens past the Rangers and into the second round.

Based on past performances, Ottawa's skaters have no reason to fear Garden ice. Since the 2004-2005 work stoppage the Senators are 11-2-1 at MSG where they haven't lost since October 2009.

Make no mistake, while Anderson hardly is Lundqvist's equal as a puck-stopper, Andy is good and his second 30-win season underlines the point. Then again this will be only his second career playoff appearance, the only other being a six-game ouster in 2010 as a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

For Ottawa to succeed, secondary scoring must match the Rangers support arsenal and this is unlikely to happen  The series could hinge on Kyle Turris, a former third overall pick acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes earlier this season, who has found his offensive game the last two weeks of the season. His production would be an added bonus to that of Collin Greening and Nick Foligno.

The Sens' tenth-ranked power rplay will be key especially with the Rangers PP issues this season.  An Ottawa series victory will rely on both Karlsson's and Sergei Gonchar's ability to get pucks through to the net, and Michalek's finishing from the dirty areas of the ice.

The Senators will also require recently-injured toughie Chris Neil to be a factor. If healthy, Neil likely will set the physical tone for Ottawa especially if he is used against the top line of Gaborik,
Carl Hagelin, and Richards.

New York will have a battle on its hands but will prevail because the Blueshirts are a physical team that's six defenseman deep, boasts the league's best goaltender, and has no issue playing close, physical games. In a sense the Rangers have played "playoff hockey" since the start of the season.

Thanks to The King, The Captain, The Coach and a well-rounded supporting cast, the Rangers will oust Ottawa in five games.


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