Tuesday, April 10, 2012

NHL Playoff Mental Game Breakdown: #1 Rangers vs. #8 Senators

The NHL Playoffs kickoff April 11 and the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs have four interesting match ups. Many prognosticators are leaning heavily towards a favorite in each series. NHL.com experts are pretty much picking the Rangers, Pens, Devils, and Bruins across the board. I believe there will be at least 1-2 upsets in the first round. Why? Take a look at the mental dynamics that are going on in each series.

Here is a breakdown of each series in the East and the mental dynamics that are occurring. This is, of course, at the start of the series. Getting down 2-0 on home ice is a mental dynamic that may emerge for one of these higher seeds but I cannot anticipate. Thus, the mental game breakdown will change each game, but these factors are existing from the start of the series. Let's start with the New York-Ottawa series.

#1 NY Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa

Advantages NYR: Lundqvist, Coach Tortorella, team approach

The Rangers had an excellent regular season lead by their all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. When the Rangers strong defensive approach does allow the puck to get through, Lundqvist seems to be in perfect position every time. The shut down goaltending and defense of the Rangers can be intimidating and get in the heads of their opponents (ask the Flyers). If the Rangers can continue their excellent team defense and hot goaltending they will have a mental edge on their opponents. Having John Tortorella behind the bench is also an advantage because he has won a Cup. I imagine his players believe he knows what it takes and are bought-in to his approach.

Barriers NYR: Recent playoff history, NYC turns quickly, recent performances so-so

With such a great regular season what barriers could exist, really? New York was not impressive down the stretch and suffered two losses to the Pens which may have affected their confidence. Everyone is talking about Pittsburgh as the top dog in the East despite the fact the Rangers finished first and were in first place the whole second half of the season. The Rangers will have to overcome their recent history of losing in the first round of the playoffs. The Rangers do have playoff experience, just not good memories. Having Brad Richards who has won a Cup should help, but it is time for NY to put up.

The other issue is that the New York faithful has high expectations and can turn quickly if things don't go well. I will be interested to see the Rangers Game 1 in Madison Square Garden. I think they could be tight because of the New York limelight. It is a perfect opportunity for Ottawa to steal a road game.

Advantages Ottawa: Veteran performers, Underdog role and NY Rangers' lofty expectations

Ottawa had a consistent effort this season to make the playoffs. The Sens were fueled by the play of Jason Spezza, who had a big offensive season.  Few people are giving the Sens a chance in this series and that is why they have a chance. The Rangers cannot lose this series; it would be a colossal failure. The burden that New York is playing with is perfect for a Sens team that has good veteran leadership with Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips. Ottawa will be ready to play and has nothing to lose. They know that they can get at least one of the first two in New York thus creating big time pressure on their opponent.

Barriers Ottawa: Playoff inexperience, recent performance poor

One of the main reasons Ottawa is not given much of a chance to win this series is their inexperience. The majority of this squad will be playoff newbies. Can they handle the pressures of the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Getting down two goals on the road? A slow start? Playing the underdog role helps, but at the end of the day the Sens will need to step up and play great hockey under pressure. Until this inexperienced group is playoff tested there is no telling how they will respond. Ottawa slipped in to the eighth spot after limping home to finish the season. They will need to play much better and take Game 1 or 2 in New York. Otherwise the heat will be turned up in the capital of Canada. Goaltender Craig Anderson will need to be a difference-maker if the Sens can pull off the upset.

Take Home: The Rangers have way more pressure on them to win this series which will make it far closer than anyone is expecting. Ottawa will have a chance to win this series; they have nothing to lose.

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