Next up in our 2012 Eastern Conference Quarter Final preview series is a comparison of the defencemen for the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators. Individually, the Rangers have a dark horse candidate for the Norris Trophy in Dan Girardi, but the Sens have one of the top blueliners in the league with Erik Karlsson. Other than that, though, there isn't much these two teams have in common on the back-end.
In terms of team defence, the Rangers looked significantly better--Ottawa allowed on average 2.88 goals per game, the worst of any team that made the playoffs, while the Rangers allowed just 2.22 per game. That probably had as much to do with goaltending as it did with defence, but it's an important statistic to consider.
A year ago, Ottawa's blueline was in complete shambles. Chris Phillips had played through what was (hopefully) the worst professional year of his career, and Sens fans wanted to leave Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar out at the end of the driveway once the garage sale was over. This season has been a renaissance of sorts for the defense's veteran corps, but their validating campaign has paled under the glow of Erik Karlsson's spectacular year. The Rangers have a deep group of good defensive defensemen, but the series could turn in part on the Rangers' D's ability to keep up with the Senators and clamp down on a group that is quick in transition and tenacious on the forecheck. Some of Ottawa's other defensemen have picked up on MacLean's message and have activated effectively. Chris Phillips has been joining rushes like it's still his 1000th game and Sergei Gonchar has picked up two goals in the last two weeks by creeping into the high slot. For all we know, Matt Gilroy might even have an idea of how to get the puck into the Rangers' zone, but I'm not counting on it. Edge: It still goes to the Rangers- if they find a way to stifle Ottawa's mobility, the Sens won't have a good run on Broadway.
All right, look... Karlsson is good. He deserves the Norris Trophy--but not for his play in his own zone. Not that he's terrible, but he drives the team's offense. After that, we've got Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips, and Sergei Gonchar, all players rebounding from what can only be described as putrid seasons. At best, we could call them steady but unremarkable.
The bottom line: Ottawa's defense has given up 236 goals, 7th worst in the league. New York's has given up 182--that's third-best in the league. The 50-goal difference tells the story better than I can.
Erik Karlsson is by far the best defenceman on either team, but aside from him, the Rangers are assumed to hold a big edge. The Rangers defence has allowed 27.8 shots per game, which is sixth best in the NHL. The Senators have allowed 32.0 shots per game, which is more than any other team except Carolina.
Looking at offence from the defence is a different story. Karlsson has 78 points, and the Senators defence has totalled 201 points for the season compared to the 150 by the Rangers. Marc Staal has just point 5 points in 46 games this season and has a Corsi Relative of -15.7, which is 5th worst in the entire NHL for defencemen with at least 40 games played.
The Rangers are better at preventing shots but Erik Karlsson is the big equaliser here.
Ottawa's got a lot of experience on the back-end between Chris Phillips, Sergei Gonchar, and Filip Kuba, and that should serve the team well--although the inexperience of Karlsson, Matt Carkner, Matt Gilroy, and Jared Cowen will offset that to some degree.
New York's mostly youth on the blue line, though, aside from Girardi--and with that youth comes inexperience. In fact, both Sergei Gonchar (118 career playoff games) and Chris Phillips (97 career playoff games) have played more post-season games than New York's top seven defenders combined--they've got 64 playoff games between them. I think that's a big deal, and I think it might matter in the long run.
Advantage: Ottawa, thanks to Karlsson's dynamic presence and the experience of his seniors.
Erik Karlsson has an opportunity to show, on a big stage, that he really is an elite D-man in this league. That he is more than just a forward playing poor defense, but that he plays an effective brand of hockey with skills no one else has. Can he do it? Well its a key to this series for the Sens. He is a game breaker and will be playing about 30 minutes a night. The Veteran Three (Gonch, Kuba, Phillips) all looked good down the stretch, and Jared Cowen has played well for a rookie this season, and his punishing style suits the playoffs--he's won a Memorial Cup and a Calder Cup. The Rags have a solid group of D-Men led by Girardi, but overall, it is also a young group, and their best D-man Marc Staal hasn't been the same since returning from injury. Del Zotto is a good young player, as is McDonagh but they haven't had much success against the Sens speedy forwards this season.
I may be in the minority, but I think if Karlsson plays the way he did in February/early March and plays 30 minutes a game, this is one where I have to say...
This is where things get interesting. I think most assume the Rangers have the edge on the blue line. And the Rangers do have a core of young, gifted defensemen. Del Zotto has the ability to put up points and move the puck and Girardi and McDonagh have earned a reputation for being elite penalty killers. Marc Staal's promising career has been somewhat derailed by concussion-like symptoms this year but should not be discounted. Here's the thing: Henrik Lundqvist might be covering for a less than stellar bottom three for the Rangers. On the other hand, Ottawa's defensive liabilities are well known. They give up way too many shots and are also thin on their third pairing. Ottawa's defense excels offensively and this is their strength. Karlsson has 8 more points than Del Zotto and McDonagh combined. Simply put, there's no one on the Rangers who matched his point totals, including Gaborik and Richards.