Can the Struggling Rangers Hang with the Surprising Senators?

Andrew CapitelliContributor IMarch 26, 2013

Can the Struggling Rangers Hang with the Surprising Senators?

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    Last April we saw the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators give the top-seeded New York Rangers a run for their money in their seven game Eastern Conference quarterfinals matchup.

    Although the Rangers ended up winning the series, there were times the Senators thoroughly out-played them; some may even say Ottawa deserved to win the series.

    Fast-forward nearly a year and these two teams have picked up right where their playoff series left off, with the Senators being a major thorn in the Rangers' side. 

    Thursday night will be the third meeting between these two clubs in 2013, and in the first two meetings, the Rangers have once again struggled, collecting only one of a possible four points. 

    And although the Rangers have stumbled mightily this season, the Senators have faced an enormous amount of adversity, as they've played without arguably their four best players—Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson—for most of the year.

    Yet they continue to roll on, proving to be a handful for not only the Rangers but all of their opponents. Despite their decimated roster, they remain in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, while the Rangers are on the edge of their seat in the eighth spot.

    The question going into Thursday night is: Can the Rangers keep up with the surprising Senators, or will they flub another crucial two points to a team filled with minor leaguers?

Offense

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    Ottawa has by no means been a high-scoring hockey team, but the Rangers are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference when it comes to offensive production.

    Which is mind-boggling when you consider the offensive talent this team has stockpiled over the past four years.

    But the fact that Ottawa has scored more goals than the Rangers this season with their two best forwards on the sidelines is completely unacceptable and further proves that they're underperforming. 

    Many believed the Senators were overperforming when Spezza and Karlsson went down, and the team continued to score big goals and win games. But the mood has changed; this team is scoring by committee—something the Rangers cannot do—and it's paying dividends as Ottawa continues to win games.

    Players like Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad have stepped up and scored some big goals in the absence of top players, while the Rangers' top forwards continue to slip into mediocrity while their team continues to struggle.

    Although the Rangers exploded with five goals on Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, it doesn't mean their troubles are over. Hopefully they can carry some of Tuesday night's momentum into Thursday night.

    Edge: Ottawa.

Defense

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    Both Ottawa and New York have had success keeping the puck out of their own net for the better part of the 2013 season.

    Ottawa has the second lowest goals-against total in the Eastern Conference, while the Rangers have the third lowest total.

    What's even more impressive is both teams are playing without their top defensemen: Marc Staal for the Rangers and Erik Karlsson for the Senators.

    No doubt, Ottawa has missed their top guy more—he was last year's Norris Trophy winner. But Ottawa also doesn't have as good of a defensive core as the Rangers do.

    Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips and Marc Methot are nice players, but they don't have the edge over Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto.

    Regardless, the Senators have allowed less goals and have won more games, so they have performed better thus far. 

    Edge: Going with the Rangers here. They've got the better group, and I think they'll do well handling the Ottawa forwards. 

Goaltending

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    With only 16 games remaining, John Tortorella is going to have to carefully choose which games to rest Henrik Lundqvist. 

    Thursday night's tilt in Ottawa should not be one of those games.

    In a perfect world, Hank would start them all, but that isn't feasible, especially if the Rangers have any plans to make a solid, deep postseason run. Marty Biron is going to have to see some action.

    He's only started four games this year, and the reason that number is so low isn't because he's played poorly—he's actually looked pretty good—but because the team's offense is beyond anemic, and if Tortorella wants to give his team the best opportunity to win a game, Lundqvist must be in the net standing on his head.

    I'm unsure who will be starting for Ottawa, but what I do know is that it'll be either Ben Bishop or Robin Lehner. The two have been sharing the load since starting goaltender Craig Anderson went down with a knee injury against the Rangers back on February 21.

    Both have played well ,and it's been a nice surprise for the Senators organization, but it doesn't matter which one of them plays on Thursday. Lundqvist is miles ahead of these two.

    Edge: Rangers.

Coaching

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    If Ottawa continues its pace and reaches the playoffs in a similar position they find themselves in now, Paul MacLean will no doubt find himself as the favorite to take home the Jack Adams Award as NHL's best coach.

    What he's done is really impressive. Every year there are teams with injury problems, but MacLean has taken a team who's lost nearly all of its top players, and not just kept them competitive, but turned them into a top team nobody wants to play.

    On the flip side, John Tortorella has had an able-bodied squad for almost the entire season, yet he's had trouble integrating the new players into his system, while many of the returning players look unmotivated and/or short on confidence.

    Many fans are calling for his head because they expected much more from the team this year. Some question whether or not his style of play suits the current make-up of the team, and others wonder if the players have quit on him.

    There are just too many questions still facing the Rangers as they head into the homestretch—questions Tortorella doesn't appear to have the answers to. 

    It's clear which of these coaches has a better handle on his team.

    Edge: Paul MacLean.