Now that Toronto Maple Leafs ownership has apologized to its fans, perhaps it is time for a great many fans – and almost all media – to apologize to the Ottawa Senators.
Most experts thought they would be chasing a lottery, not playoff, position by the end of the 2011-12 regular season in which the Senators were, by their own definition, "rebuilding." They may have come eighth in the Eastern Conference, scraping into the final playoff spot with the lowest points total of the 16 NHL teams heading into the postseason, but they're in – and they're in when relatively good teams such as the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars are not, so it is a time to salute as well as apologize.
In coming eighth in the East, the Senators meet the team that came first: the New York Rangers. There may – even if subconsciously – have been a method to the Senators madness in losing three in a row in the final days and consequently falling out of seventh. Seventh place would have meant playing the Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
If regular season statistics mean anything – and they don't – the Senators have owned the Rangers this year, winning three of four matches and outscoring New York 7-1 in Ottawa's last two victories.
The two teams compare far better than the two cities. New York has 8.4 million people, Ottawa has to beg from Gatineau, across the Ontario-Quebec border, just to reach a million. They sell fake purses on the streets of New York, real maple syrup on the market streets of Ottawa. Sully Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River; they land pike and pickerel on the Ottawa River. The Empire State Building is the tallest building in New York; the tallest structure ever in Ottawa is, unfortunately, now in Boston: six-foot-nine defenceman Zdeno Chara, who would be most welcome if only he were still in a Senators jersey.
As for the actual teams, they break down approximately along these lines:
Goal: The Rangers have the best goaltender in the east in Henrik (King Henrik) Lundqvist. The Ottawa Senators have Craig (Pinkie) Anderson, who may not have the stats but gets the wins. Anderson, who can be streaky, would have to be at the very top of his game for the Senators to have any chance. Advantage, Rangers.
Defence: The Senators have the most exciting defenceman in the NHL in 21-year-old Erik Karlsson, whose 78 points sound like they belong to an all-star forward. He can be shut down, as happened in important games this spring. It will be up to playoff warrior Chris Phillips and rebounding Filip Kuba to be at their very best, as well. New York has Dan Girardi (partnered with the effective Ryan McDonagh) and Michael Del Zotto to move pucks effectively. If promising young New York defenceman Marc Staal can finally reassert himself after much of a long year recovering from concussion, he could tip the scales. Advantage, neither.
Forwards: Jason Spezza had a brilliant year for Ottawa, but so, too, did Marian Gaborik for the Rangers. New York's Brad Richards won a Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup's most valuable player in 2004 and has played exceptionally. Ottawa has more scorers – Milan Michalek's 35 goals are a season best for him – but New York has more depth overall. Advantage, slightly Rangers.
Leadership: Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson had a bounce-back year at an age, 39, when most hockey players are hoping to get back to their best golf handicap. New York captain Ryan Callahan has established himself as a rugged, determined leader who can score the important goals and check the important opponents. He had nine game-winners this season. Alfredsson, to counter, has had 11 game-winning goals in the playoffs. Advantage, Alfredsson, on experience.
Coaching: Fire and ice. John Tortorella of the Rangers is the bench's hottest head, racking up $50,000 (U.S.) in fines this season alone for his outbursts on such topics as NHL officiating during the Winter Classic and the on-ice behaviour of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby. Paul MacLean of the Senators is the coolest head in the game. MacLean massages, Tortorella whips. MacLean might be coach of the year. Tortorella, however, has already coached a team to the Stanley Cup (Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004). Advantage, Tortorella.
Intangibles: It would be nice to point to a character player such as Senators forward Chris Neil, who can play a big game when he sets his mind to it, or to Brian Boyle, the 6-foot-7 Rangers giant who learned early on, as the middle child of 13, how to stake out his ground and get his share. But the unfortunate intangible here might be injury. Gaborik has finally had a healthy regular season; Alfredsson struggled last year with injury. Injuries are so unpredictable that we need only point to Anderson in the Ottawa net and his loss to the team through several critical weeks in March because of a knife wound to the little finger of his blocker hand. Advantage, whichever team stays healthiest.
In the end, it's likely more of a flip of the coin than the regular-season finishes of the two teams would suggest.
Meaning, obviously, advantage, fans.