GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The experience factor is a popular topic this time of year. Basically, it’s this: Is playoff experience a factor in a series?
Usually, the team loaded with experienced playoff players says yes. The Rangers are the ones who have postseason history on their side. When this second-round series with the Senators is over, there will be five Rangers on the roster who will be the all-time franchise leaders in playoff games played.
“I think the experience makes you trust yourself and relax more in tense situations, because you’ve been there before,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who will extend his franchise record by making his 123rd postseason appearance in Game 1 Thursday against the Senators in Ottawa. “You learn as you live — you learn, every experience, every year. It’s like a toolbox you use in certain situations. And we have a lot of guys who have been in important games over the years. It helps you, there’s no question.”
The down side to all that experience is it usually means the most experienced guys are, well, on the down side of their careers. Dan Girardi has logged nearly 1,000 games between regular season and playoffs in just over a decade and that sort of wear and tear takes a toll.
But there are only a handful of Senators who have played into the second round and beyond. Longtime players such as Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson, Kyle Turris and Mike Hoffman have only been past the first round once, back in 2013, when Ottawa got steamrolled by the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
In the three springs since then, the Rangers have been to a Cup final and an Eastern Conference final, with mainstays such as Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider still around from those deep runs.
“It does [matter],” Alain Vigneault said. “That experience, getting ready — there is pressure in those games. Helping the younger guys going through it for a first, second or even a third time. There’s no doubt that experience helps and I expect our veterans to be a strong voice in our room.”
They were in the series against the Canadiens. After a team-wide no-show (aside from Lundqvist) in Game 3 to drop the Rangers in a 2-1 series hole, the players who have been here for many springs spoke up. There were meetings and there was a concerted effort to make sure the whole team knew what was needed.
“I think after that Game 3 it could’ve went a different way if we didn’t have the experience we do in our room,” Staal said. “As a group, we took it upon ourselves to be a lot better after that and we were. It can be to your advantage to have that, sure.”
A win over the Senators would mean a fourth conference final trip for this Rangers core group in the last six playoff tournaments (they lost to the Devils in 2012, beat the Canadiens in 2014 and lost to the Lightning in 2015). There is still that elusive Stanley Cup out there and no one is getting any younger — in fact, it seems painfully obvious that Girardi’s Rangers tenure will end when this postseason does, given the three years at $5.5 million per left on his deal.
But the sting of last year’s five-game elimination by the Penguins seemed to have been motivation enough to get back to the playoffs and get through the first round.
“That one hurt,” Lundqvist said. “Also the way it ended, they just ran us over. You move on, but that one stayed around for a while. You use it as motivation when you train over the summer. You learn from every experience, good or bad, how to prepare, how to be better. I’m 35 now and I still feel like I’m learning stuff, dealing with stuff in different ways as you get older. It’s important to be open minded there.”
Staal echoed those remarks, seeing how he and his longtime teammates changed a bit heading into this season.
“Last year, a lot of us weren’t happy with a lot of the year,” he said. “We came into this year with a different mentality than we had in years past. We kind of took it a day at a time, we weren’t talking about the Stanley Cup every day, about making a run in the playoffs. We were talking about how to get better every day and how we could be playing our best going into the playoffs. We’ve done a good job of narrowing that focus down.”
Five current Rangers are in the team’s top 10 for all-time career playoff games played:
1. Henrik Lundqvist 122
2. Dan Girardi 116
3. Marc Staal 98
4. Walt Tkaczuk 93
5. Derek Stepan 91
6. Ryan McDonagh 90
7. Don Maloney 85
8. Ron Greschner 84
9. Brian Leetch 82
10. Rod Gilbert 79