The idea that the Stanley Cup playoffs can be chaotic and unpredictable was exciting to Rangers fans when their team entered as the seventh seed three years ago, or when they entered as the eighth seed last year. First-round upsets aren’t unheard of in the NHL, and back in 2009, the Rangers damn near pulled one off, taking Washington to a Game 7. Now, for the first time in years, the Rangers enter the playoffs with real expectations: They’re the top seed in the East (even if they’re not necessarily the favorite to come out of the conference), and suddenly the idea of a first-round upset isn’t so much fun.
So, how vulnerable are the Rangers in round one? Drawing the Senators in the opening round presented some concerns: The Rangers finished just 1-2-1 against Ottawa, and they’ve struggled with speedy teams throughout the season. And how you feel the Rangers ended their season depends on what you use as your endpoint: They went 1-3 in their last four games (the final two defeats came after they’d clinched the top seed in the East), but they went a more respectable 7-4 in their final eleven games. Go back to March 6 — again, an arbitrary end point — and they’re 9-9-0. (Ottawa, by the way, finished the season with three straight losses, but won the four games before that, and lost the three games before that.) So, make of that what you will, or make nothing of it. Momentum isn’t really on the Rangers’ side, but it’s not necessarily working against them either. They did enough to hold off Pittsburgh, they got a bit of help along the way, and here we are.
The Rangers’ play towards the end of the season is the cause for at least one prediction of an upset: ESPN’s Neil Greenberg (subscription required) uses the Pythagorean win expectation (a formula that evaluates a team’s strength based on goals for and goals against) to pick a winner, and explains that over the past 35 games, Ottawa has a goal differential of plus-11, while the Rangers’ is plus-4. It’s not the most convincing stat we’ve ever seen — over the course of the full season, the Rangers’ goal differential was much better than Ottawa’s — but for what it’s worth, he gives the Sens a 53 percent chance of winning the series, and picks them to win in six.
The consensus entering the playoffs is that the Rangers will need to do a better job of scoring — and more specifically, do a better job of getting secondary scoring beyond their top line — to succeed in the playoffs. We agree: In broad terms, this team struggles more to score goals than to prevent them. Henrik Lundqvist is a big part of the reason they prevent goals so well, but his numbers dipped over the final month of the season. Perhaps, as Ron Duguay told us this week, that’s in part a product of things beyond his control, like opposing players screening him to throw him off his game. But that’s not exactly encouraging, either. Bad bounces will happen, but it’s important that Lundqvist’s teammates do their part to prevent goals and give him the best chance possible to carry them deep into the playoffs.
We don’t mean to be pessimistic here: We think the Rangers will win this series. But we don’t think they’ll cruise. They’re not a perfect candidate to be upset — let’s not forget all the reasons the Rangers have gotten to where they are — but we could see how it could happen. If Lundqvist is something less than unbeatable — and if the Rangers can’t make the best of their scoring opportunities — games could be tight, and though we like the Rangers’ chances in such situations, we’re also aware that fluky things can happen. The puck drops for Game 1 at 7 p.m.