Thursday night is a big one for the Rangers.
It's the first time since 1996 that the Rangers will be opening a playoff series on home ice, which would be a pretty big day at the Garden even if they weren't also the Eastern Conference regular season champions for the first time since 1994. The building should be rocking and it should remain rocking just as long as the Rangers keep giving the fans a reason for exuberance.
On Wednesday, we discussed some ways that the Senators could put an end to all the fun and games. Their speed is a real concern, especially since it carried them to three wins over our boys in the regular season and it is the one place the Rangers defense is really vulnerable.
But that speed will only be a problem if the Rangers allow it to be a problem. Dictating the pace and style of game is going to be crucial for their chances of advancement, just as it has been all season, and that's one thing to feel good about as the team's playoff odyssey gets underway.
If the Rangers weren't capable of standing up and figuring out a way through adverse moments, they wouldn't have won the Eastern Conference. Teams with less backbone would have allowed the Penguins to force their way into the top spot down the stretch, but the Rangers controlled their stumble well enough to remain in the drivers seat.
The biggest reason why they were able to do that is the biggest reason to believe the Rangers are going to be moving on from their date with the Senators. We've included four other ones as well to give you something to think about -- especially since you can't follow any players on Twitter anymore -- before the puck finally drops in Game One.
John Tortorella: It took a while for the team to fully mold itself into the kind of unit that Tortorella has wanted since he came to New York, but they've done it and the results have been remarkable. This team throws itself into every moment of every game and refuses to be outworked by the opposition, two things that translate directly into the kind of consistently strong performances that teams have to have to make a long playoff run.
Ryan Callahan: Consider this an extension of the above as Callahan is the player who best exemplifies the style that Tortorella wants his team to play and his ability to do it as team captain has trickled down the entre roster. His relentlessness sets the right tone and it will be a hard one for the Senators to match.
The Marian Gaborik/Brad Richards Partnership: It wasn't instant chemistry between these two, but their romantic comedyish slow realization that they were born to play with one another certainly appeared to find paydirt before the end of the season. It's not enough for the Rangers to just outwork everybody, they need to score as well, and the Gaborik/Richards pairing is one that has become increasingly difficult to stop.
The Dan Girardi/Ryan McDonagh Partnership: Gaborik and Richards provide the sizzle, and these two defensemen provide the responsible back end play that makes the sizzle pay off in victories. Blocking shots and finishing checks -- the specialties of this pair -- against the opposition's top lines eventually leads to demoralized snipers who aren't willing to pay the price to get a chance at goal.
Henrik Lundqvist: No, we didn't forget about the Sports Illustrated cover boy who is looking to cement himself in the upper strata of the NHL's goaltenders with a playoff run to remember. He's been a little more human over the last two months (still a little less human than most keepers) but he hasn't been overworked and should be ready to make every play the Rangers need him to make.
It's hard to predict exactly when a goalie will go on the kind of hot streak that ends with a Cup in his hands, but Lundqvist feels as well positioned for one as any goalie we've ever seen. He carried the Rangers for long stretches of the regular season, rose to the occasion at the Winter Classic and maintained the highest level of play of his career for the entire season.
He can't win it alone, obviously, but you can see the help he's got up above. Put it together with Lundqvist and you've got a recipe that looks awfully tasty.