The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, and by the end of it you'll feel like The Walking Dead. Hence, zombie motif!
It seemed destined that the Ottawa Senators would end up facing the Boston Bruins in the first round, but the end of the NHL's regular season can provide surprises -- such as this No. 1 vs. No. 8 series that some believe is closer than it appears.
The New York Rangers dominated the Eastern Conference for majority of the 2011-12 season. The Pittsburgh Penguins nipped at their heels near the end, but New York has been quite comfortable atop the standings. They fell short of winning the Presidents' Trophy, but really, there's only one piece of silverware that teams at this time of year worry about.
Before the season, to even suggest that Ottawa would make playoffs would get you laughed at. Everyone, us included, didn't expect competitive hockey out of Canada's capital, but then Erik Karlsson blossomed into a Norris Trophy contender; Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek returned to old forms; and captain Daniel Alfredsson was re-born, healthy and playing at a level that has many believing the 39-year-old will delay retirement for another year.
The Senators have come this far already. Can they make a little noise in the East?
Here's the breakdown of the Rangers and Senators, complete with Zombified observations …
New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)
April 12: Ottawa at New York, 7 p.m. ET.
April 14: Ottawa at New York, 7 p.m. ET.
April 16: New York at Ottawa, 7:30 p.m. ET.
April 18: New York at Ottawa, 7:30 p.m. ET.
April 21: Ottawa at New York, 7 p.m. ET.*
April 23: New York at Ottawa TBD*
April 26: Ottawa at New York TBD*
The Rangers needed scoring depth heading into this season and they added it in bringing on Brad Richards (25 goals) and Carl Hagelin (14 goals). Richards' presence helped Marian Gaborik (41 goals) find his scoring touch again.
Captain Ryan Callahan put up career numbers in goals (29) and points (54) and led all Rangers forwards in blocked shots (88) and hits (271). He's not afraid to sacrifice his body and this season managed to stay healthy doing so. Derek Stepan had a solid sophomore season after a strong rookie year. He'll be key in helping to create offense on the second line.
Brian Boyle and Brandon Dubinsky took big dips offensively, while Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov took small steps back from a year ago. Their contributions will be focal points in helping the Rangers' secondary scoring get going.
Ottawa ended up as the NHL's fourth-ranked offense averaging 2.96 goals per game. Jason Spezza (34) and Milan Michalek (35) each hit the 30-goal mark, while six others also hit double digits. The 28-year-old Spezza has matured and found his game again, and it's one of the reasons for the Senators' success.
Alfredsson is a similar case. No longer the 40-goal, 80-point man he once was, Alfredsson refined his game, stayed healthy and was productive enough (27 goals, 59 points) to not only be the team's leader, but also a valuable contributor.
Colin Greening (17 goals) and Zack Smith (14 goals) both enjoyed breakout seasons and provided the needed secondary scoring that helped boost the Ottawa offense. Nick Foligno produced a career high 47 points, but also continued to bring grit along with Chris Neil.
When Kyle Turris was acquired from Phoenix in December, it signaled a new start for him and plenty of opportunity. He took advantage of the chance and popped in 12 goals and 29 points playing the most minutes (17:21 with Ottawa) in his young career.
Only two other teams (St. Louis and Los Angeles) were better defensively than the Rangers this season. Allowing 2.22 goals per game, New York was led by Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh who both play the tough minutes and only blue liners on the Rangers to average more than 24 minutes a game. The Rangers don't get much offense from their blue line, which was led by Michael Del Zotto's 10 goals and 41 points. He'll be their anchor on the power play after leading all NHL defensemen with 4:11 of ice per game with the man advantage.
Behind them is Marc Staal who played 46 games after returning from a concussion and can be looked at at in midseason form right now. Anton Stralman rounds out the defensemen who produced more than nine points. He'll be partnered with Staal on the second pairing.
When talking about the Senators' defense, you have to begin with Karlsson. The 21-year-old took a step back in his sophomore year, but then a major step forward this season recording 19 goals and 78 points. He'll likely end up on a lot of Norris Trophy ballots, some might even have him as the winner. He's the key cog on the power play as well.
Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kupa will be relied upon to provide most of the remaining offense from the back, unless Chris Phillips decides to go on another goal scoring spree like he did in February.
Keeping the puck of their net will be the issue for Ottawa. Their plus-9 goal differential was 14th in the NHL and while they haven't had an issue scoring from the blue line, they've had to dig pucks out of their own net far too often.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, Artem Anisimov will be the Rangers' survivor because of his advanced skills in the art of using the hockey stick gun.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, every Senator will survive because they'll just hide in Paul MacLean's mustache.
Henrik Lundqvist could finally be in line for some individual hardware come June as he'll likely be up for the Vezina Trophy and potentially the Hart Trophy. After the best season of his career (39 wins, 1.97 GAA, .930 save-percentage), Lundqvist now needs his success to continue over into the playoffs.
Ottawa gives up a lot of shots, but Craig Anderson has done a good job keeping enough out of the net to help deliver the Senators success. Despite a hand injury in February, Anderson took on the bulk of work playing 63 games. He can be streak at times. Anderson won at least four games in a row five different times this season. Ottawa is hoping his next streak begins Thursday night.
The Senators are the zombie everyone assumed would be chained in the basement ... until they learned how to open doors.
John Tortorella knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. So does Brad Richards, who he coached in Tampa when the Lightning were champions in 2004. His brash, abrasive style hasn't worn thin on the Rangers just yet and so far he's found that fine line of tough love to help guide New York to their best season since 1994, the last time they won the Cup.
Paul MacLean comes from the coaching tree of Mike Babcock and in his first year exceeded all expectations. A likely nominee for the Jack Adams Awards, MacLean has found the right times to push his players to help get the most out of them.
Adding Brad Richards to the power play didn't provide the success many had hoped. New York's power play finished 23rd in the league with a 15.7 percent success rate. Callahan (13) and Gaborik (10) led the way in goals, but the unit was far too inconsistent at times for a team that sports that amount of talent.
Ottawa's power play unit found the back of the net 18.2 percent of the time, good enough for 11th in the NHL. Spezza and Michalek each scored 10 times while 12 others chipped in at least once with the extra man. The Senators were susceptible up a man allowing seven shorthanded goals.
Down a man, the Rangers were ranked fifth in the league killing 86.2 percent of power plays. Defensive stalwarts Giradi, McDonagh and Callahan helped contain opposing power play units. New York also scored eight times short-handed.
Like the Rangers, the penalty kill for Ottawa was opposite of their power play. Killing 81.6 percent of power plays, the Senators' kill was 20th overall. More bad news is that Craig Anderson power play save-percentage was .885.
In order to defeat the Rangers, Ottawa must remind themselves how they took three of four games against New York and outscored them 14-8. It may be a No. 1 vs No. 8 matchup on paper, but the Senators know that the Rangers are a team they can beat.
In order to defeat the Senators, New York must take smart shots. Anderson has seen plenty of rubber (seventh most shots against), but managed to earn wins. The Rangers have the snipers to keep Anderson busy, but they also must make him work for his saves.
Rangers in 5. The Rangers' defense and Lundqvist will smother Ottawa's offense and cause them to continue turning over the puck like they did during the regular season. Given a series where games are played just about every other day, it won't take long for the Rangers to have a book on Anderson and figure out a way to beat him early and often.