When the Rangers clinched the first wild-card playoff berth in the East, they found themselves poised on what appeared to be an easier path to a possible Eastern Conference final by initially escaping the minefield of the Metropolitan Division and crossing over into the Atlantic.
After all, going toe-to-toe in the first round with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins or John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets, who finished with 111 and 108 points, among the best in the NHL, and following that with a possible series against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, was not exactly the stuff of Stanley Cup dreams.
Instead, their first-round opponent was the Montreal Canadiens, a formidable foe — finally dispatched in Game 6 last night — which emerged as Atlantic champs under new coach Claude Julien, who had been fired in early February by the Boston Bruins.
There is no re-seeding in the NHL: the second-round opponent for the Rangers (102 points) will be the winner of the best-of-seven series between the Bruins and Ottawa Senators, which moves to Game 6 this afternoon in Boston. The Senators hold a 3-2 edge. Three of the five games have been decided in overtime.
BEST MATCHUP FOR RANGERS: SENS OR BRUINS?
Flip a coin.
The Rangers, with a speedier, balanced offense and Henrik Lundqvist, would be favored against either team.
In the regular season, the Senators and Bruins finished second and third in the Atlantic, with 98 and 95 points and 44 wins apiece. The Bruins, who were better on special teams than the Rangers during the regular season, are currently banged up and are struggling to score; the Senators are built around head coach Guy Boucher’s structured defense and rely on captain and Norris Trophy finalist Erik Karlsson to drive the opportunistic offense.
During the regular season, the Rangers and Bruins played three times, with the Blueshirts winning all three: 5-2 on both Oct. 26 at home and on Nov. 5 in TD Garden, with Julien behind the bench, and 2-1 in Boston on March 2, after Bruce Cassidy replaced Julien.
The Senators won two of three against the Blueshirts. The teams split the first two at Madison Square Garden early in the season, with Antti Raanta, not Lundqvist, in net, a 2-0 Rangers loss on Nov. 27 and a 4-3 win a month later. In the penultimate game of the season, with the Rangers resting a half-dozen regulars, the Senators won 3-1 at Canadian Tire Centre.
POSSIBLE STORY LINES
To be sure, they would abound in either case.
A series with the “Original Six” Bruins, who have faced the Rangers in the playoffs 10 times starting in 1927 and most recently in 2013, when Tortorella’s Blueshirts lost in five games in the conference semifinals, would continue that long rivalry.
A battle starting next week would be a homecoming for Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and rookie Jimmy Vesey, who were born in the Boston area. Kreider and Hayes attended Boston College, Vesey graduated from Harvard. Dominic Moore, the veteran forward who skated in two separate stints with the Rangers and also attended Harvard, plays for the Bruins. And rookie Charlie McAvoy, who grew up in Long Beach, has been thrust into the playoff spotlight with three regular defensemen sidelined by injuries.
The Senators and Rangers have met just once in he postseason, during the 2012 conference quarterfinals, which the Rangers won in seven games. A showdown between two centers in an unexpected swap last summer — Derick Brassard and Mika Zibanejad — will be a popular topic for fans in both cities. And Senators goaltender Craig Anderson has been an inspiration and won the hearts of many. Anderson, 35, has left the team multiple times during the season to help his wife, Nicholle, through cancer treatments.
The last time the Rangers faced two teams from Canada in first two rounds was 80 years ago. In 1937, the Rangers played the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Maroons and won all four games, but lost to Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final, three games to two.