Senators - Rangers preview: Forwards
Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarter Final is finally here, so there's no better time to wrap up the Silver Seven series preview. The final installment features a look at the forwards on each team.
The Ottawa Senators were an offensive team, while the New York Rangers were primarily defensive, and it shows in their numbers from the regular season: Ottawa averaged 31.4 shots per game, compared to New York's 28.5, and the Sens averaged 2.96 goals per game, compared to just 2.71 for New York. Ottawa's offensive production was boosted by contributions from their defencemen, though; notably Erik Karlsson. How do the actual forwards match up?
Jason Spezza finished fourth in regular season scoring, a fact no one outside of Ottawa probably knows given the way Malkin and Stamkos tore up the league. Milan Michalek had a career-high 35 goals, and I believe he would have hit 40 if he hadn't missed time with a concussion. Daniel Alfredsson recorded 27 goals and 32 assists, and every one of them felt like they were a clutch point. After that, things get kind of murky. Nick Foligno and Colin Greening contributed 47 and 37 points, respectively, and Z. Smith was on pace to shatter 20 goals before plateauing in the second half of the season, finishing with 14. The wild card for me is Kyle Turris, whose 29 points in 49 games represents a career high, and easily a career high in points per game. Turris recently had a four-point (2G, 2A) game while Spezza was out; if he can play at that level in the playoffs, the Senators could be in really good shape.
On the other side, the Rangers can go point-for-point with Spezza and Michalek with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, two gentlemen who are no strangers to embarrassing opposing defensemen. Daniel Alfredsson's clutch play is matched by Ryan Callahan (also a captain and 5'11" RW... eerie) who has been as clutch as they come since the 2010 Olympics. Brandon Dubinsky hasn't produced points at the same level as Turris, but he's coming into the playoffs on a three-game point streak.
The Senators have scored more goals than the Rangers, but not so many that I feel comfortable saying there's a clear edge.
The Rangers have two very good top six forwards. Brad Richards had a slow start to the year but picked up his game in the second half. He captured a Cup with Torts in Tampa in 2004 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs; that experience can't be ignored. Marian Gaborik is an elite sniper who potted 40 goals this season and finally managed to stay healthy. Callahan and Stepan are more than capable top six players. Ottawa's top line boasts Jason Spezza (34 goals) and Milan Michalek (35 goals), both are proven scorers. Elder statesman Daniel Alfredsson experienced a renaissance this season, netting 27 goals. Kyle Turris might be the sleeper pick of the series. Since coming to Ottawa, Turris has stabilized the second line and developed excellent chemistry with Alfredsson. Can he push it to the next level? The Sens third line has the potential to be a difference maker. If Chris Neil can continue his physical play and chip in offensively and if Zack Smith can find the scoring touch he had during the first half, this line could make a difference. Still, New York has a slight edge in top six forwards, Ottawa in bottom six.
Advantage: New York, but only slightly.
Ottawa's top line of Greening-Spezza-Michalek is better than the Rangers top line of Hagelin-Richards-Gaborik. I'd also rank the line of Foligno-Turris-Alfredsson ahead of the Rangers second line of Anisimov-Stepan-Callahan.
The Senators have 31.4 shots per game, which is 9th most in the NHL. The Rangers by contrast have only 28.5 shots/game, which is 20th in the NHL. I can't really see an area among the forward group where I'd prefer the Rangers. The Senators have the star power, they have more goals and in Jason Spezza, the Senators have the player with the fifth most points per playoff game in the post-lockout era behind only Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jaromir Jagr.
Let's take these two and call them square: the scorer and the 19-wearing centerman. Gaborik is a bigger threat than Michalek, but Jason Spezza has accomplished more than Richards, scoring 34 for the third time in his career, but the first without being flanked by Heatley and a younger Alfie. From there, my fantasy hockey team can tell you how Brandon Dubinsky has disappointed offensively this year. Captain Callahan is a playoff-style performer and the Rangers group up front has physicality to match Ottawa's, and critically- they're good defensively. Ottawa has grit to match and a much better game in transition. The Senators score more and get more shots on goal, but have to be able to penetrate the perimeter. In a number of losses this year, the Sens have blanketed the opposing 'tender in shots, but have been contained by an inability to break through the perimeter and make things happen in the slot.
Oh, and by the way, Daniel Alfredsson.
It seems like New York's defensive system hampers the team's offence to a degree, despite Marian Gaborik's dynamic presence up front. In Ottawa, it's just the opposite: Paul MacLean's system boosts the offence (perhaps at the expense of team defence). Ottawa hasn't spent as much on forwards, but their forwards have been better able to provide greater and more consistent offence.
There is not a single player on the Rangers with the level of points that Jason Spezza had this season. Heck, none of them had even the number of points that Erik Karlsson had. But to count out players like Richards, Gaborik and Ryan Callahan would be foolish. They are excellent players, and Richards has playoff MVP experience. Jason Spezza is a point-per-game player in the playoffs in his career and Alfie has shown an ability to come up big when needed. Milan Michalek is no Gabby, but still 35 goals are 35 goals. In the end, for the Sens, it will hinge on the Kyle Turrises, Zack Smiths and Colin Greenings of the world. The big boys will show up, the depth guys need to as well. If they do,