Good Morning
Good Morning

Skilled Senators, star defenseman Erik Karlsson pose a different strategic challenge for Rangers

Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers tries

Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers tries to check Erik Karlsson  of the Ottawa Senators during the first period at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Now there is a different superstar to confront, a different style to meet, a different set of circumstances for the Rangers ahead in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. All of which is fine with them, because they showed in Round 1 that they have different ways of winning.

Depth and versatility, and of course goaltending, are on the table for the team as it shifts from its bruising victory over the Canadiens to what figures to be a more tactical series against the Senators starting Thursday.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to have to pay special attention to [Erik] Karlsson,” Alain Vigneault told Mike Francesa on WFAN Monday afternoon, referring to the Senators defenseman and potential NHL MVP. “He’s in on every rush, he’s a great first passer. It’s going to be a different challenge for us, but it’s going to be a good challenge.”

Against the Canadiens, the challenge was to get pucks past stellar goalie and team centerpiece Carey Price. Not only did the Rangers do that, but they beat Montreal at its own game, out-goaltending the opposition with Henrik Lundqvist. “He was phenomenal. I think at the end of the day, Hank outplayed Price,” Vigneault said.

It was an example that the Rangers are more than the speedy creativity that is their calling card. Another example was the fact the Rangers proved they could go shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-chest with a team that had made a point to add muscle at the trading deadline. Marc Staal said after Game 6, “We’re pretty balanced. We’ve got a lot of pride in the way we play. I think there was a question mark about our group, physicality-wise. But, I mean, this was one of the more physical series I’ve been a part of. There was not a lot of room out there. And we fought for every inch, right with them.”

Ottawa is built to rely more on strategy and defensive structure than brute force. The Senators were credited with 225 hits in their six-game series against the Bruins, compared to the Rangers’ 285 against the Canadiens. So “different” repeatedly found its way into Vigneault’s conversation on the radio Monday.

Whenever the Senators talk about Karlsson, they clearly see him in a different realm — skillful and tough, not necessarily in that order. He revealed to after the game Sunday that he has been playing with two hairline fractures in his heel, the result of blocking a shot against the Flyers on March 28.

Senators coach Guy Boucher said at his news conference Sunday: “To see where this guy is right now, to see him this year throughout the year, he has put the building blocks one on top of the other to become the player he is now and the man that he is now. I’m really fortunate to have lived it and seen it. Everybody benefits from it.”

Clarke MacArthur scored the overtime winner in Game 6 after having missed almost two full seasons because of a concussion’s aftermath. Goalie Craig Anderson has been outstanding despite having left the team for two months to care for his wife Nicholle in her battle against cancer. Then there is Derick Brassard, who had a lukewarm first season in Ottawa but a standout first playoff round after his trade from the Rangers.

“I’m just going to play hockey. I’m just trying to have fun,” Brassard told reporters Sunday. “It’s going to be a challenge for our team. We’re aware of that.”

Vigneault spoke almost the same words Monday. “Ottawa has got a little bit more skill, I would say, than Montreal,” the coach said. “It’s going to be a different kind of matchup but we’re going to be ready for it. We believe in ourselves, we believe in our group.”

New York Sports