While this season the Rangers top defensemen have undoubtedly been the Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh tandem, perhaps one of the most key aspects of a successful first round series against the Ottawa Senators may be the play (and subsequent impact) of Marc Staal.
Without doubt Staal is and has been a number one defenseman but as everyone knows, injury has meant his play has taken a while to get close to his own high standards. Indeed, he’s still not the Marc Staal of old however his play has been steadily improving of late and how Staal handles the quick and tricky Senators offense could have a huge bearing on the series.
Every Ranger fan know of the team’s 1-2-1 record in the four games against the Sens this year and will be acutely aware of how the team has struggled to score against them. Amid the 14 goals credited to the Sens in the season series it perhaps went unnoticed that Girardi was a -3 in those four games while Ryan McDonagh was -1.
Both players were also held scoreless despite providing the Rangers with solid offensive seasons with 29 and 32 points respectively. Clearly neither player has produced their best performances against the Sens and therefore how guys like Mike Del Zotto, but especially Marc Staal, cope in the series will be essential. The Rangers don’t want the top pairing munching 30+ minutes a night if they have realistic designs of a deep run.
Staal was -2 in his two games against the Sens this year but his season cannot be judged purely on numbers given how long he needed to get back into some kind of game shape. Staal will need to bring his usual physical, calm brand of hockey to the table. If he can do that, if he can ease the burden on the top pairing then the Rangers will have a great chance at disposing of the Sens.
We’ve seen Staal keep elite, dominant players such as Alex Ovechkin in check and while the likes of Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek are different types to # 8, they do like to possess the puck (Spezza) and enter the offensive zone with pace (Michalek). Staal has proven he can handle those types of challenges and his gap control, positioning and decision making in his own zone will be tested. How he handles it will be key.