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Rangers, Senators possess share of playoff neophytes

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Rangers, Senators possess share of playoff neophytes
Both the Rangers and Sens have key players who will be making their playoff debuts in Game 1 on Thursday -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

NEW YORK -- Are you experienced?

If that question is posed to members of the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers, chances are the answer will be a resounding no.

When these two teams take the ice at Madison Square Garden for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US), the top-seeded Rangers will have six players on their roster who have never played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs; the Senators will have 10.

At this time of year, a high premium is placed on players who have a resume filled with deep postseason runs. Each team has its share of those players, too -- the Rangers have Brad Richards, Ruslan Fedotenko and Mike Rupp; the Senators boast captain Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Sergei Gonchar.

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Each team has important players making their postseason debuts. For the Rangers, rookie Carl Hagelin will be on the top line with Richards and Marian Gaborik and defenseman Michael Del Zotto usually plays more than 20 minutes per game. The Senators are almost a mirror image, with rookie Colin Greening on the top line with Spezza and Milan Michalek and potential Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson acting as the No. 1 defenseman.

Rangers coach John Tortorella doesn't believe his team's paltry playoff experience is a problem because he has faith in the veterans in his locker room to do things with his young players that he cannot.

"I trust that I won't have to direct them to help out," Tortorella said. "I think a coach can get in the way directing them to this, that and the other thing. This is the players' deal. They know what's going on in that room. In certain situations, the coaches don't know. I feel very comfortable in allowing them to take care of their business."

For the Rangers besides those six who haven't played in the postseason, many got their first taste of it last year in a five-game, first-round loss to the Washington Capitals. Many of those players are important cogs in the Rangers' plans this year -- defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forwards Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Prust had never played in a complete playoff series until last year.

It's a catch 22 for Tortorella, who values experience but knows his young players need to play in the postseason in order to gather it.

"That's what they've done. You can't give them experience -- they have to play to gain that experience," Tortorella said. "The more games they get, the more they understand it. We talk about being prepared to start the series. They went through that last year, so maybe that will help this year."

Anisimov, who appeared in one postseason game prior to last year's series with the Capitals, said he's calmer and has a better understanding of what to expect when he takes the ice against the Senators.

"I know if you make one mistake, it cost the game, you know?" Anisimov said. "There's a little bit more focus, a little more everything -- effort, focus, all the details of the game go up a couple steps. That's it. Everybody is probably nervous before the first game. It's natural. When you step on the ice, the nervousness is gone and you just go to play. The last playoffs, I was nervous. It's true. Right now, I have my routine and prepare for the game."

"I think we can take that experience from last year and run with it a little bit this year," Prust said.

One area where the Senators have an advantage in youthful experience is many of their postseason newbies won a championship with the Binghamton Senators of the AHL last year. The Sens have six players from that club who will be on the ice against the Rangers on Thursday night.

There's no comparing five Stanley Cup Playoff games to a run to a minor-league championship, but Senators coach Paul MacLean, who will make his postseason debut as a coach, will take experience wherever he can find it.

"I think experience is a great thing to have this time of year," MacLean said. "I know it is American League experience, but that is the next-best league to the National Hockey League. They are not brand new coming into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They have been through a playoffs and won a championship. I think they might have an easier adjustment period."

Colin Greening (left) and Carl Hagelin (right) will make their postseason debuts Thursday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Spezza and Alfredsson were part of the 2007 Senators that lost in the Cup Final to the Anaheim Ducks. The 39-year-old Alfredsson said he doesn't mind some youthful exuberance during the playoffs.

"I think you need a mix," Alfredsson said. "The enthusiasm that comes from not having been in the playoffs before, it's valuable. No question. I think the excitement that comes from it, you kind of step up your game. Being a new guy in the playoffs, it takes pressure off because it’s up to us older guys to lead the way and they can just play their game."

Spezza was 23 years old during that run, but is now one of the veterans in a young locker room. The message he wants to get across to younger players is emotions run high in the playoffs, and losses come with the territory.

"You can draw from your past playoff experience and it can help you a lot," Spezza said. "I think the biggest thing is once you've played a little bit in the League, you realize you're going to lose some games in the playoffs and you're not going to win every night, and it's how you handle the losses and how you bounce back as a team. In order to have success in the playoffs, you have to rebound from losses.

"I think when you're a younger player, sometimes you can get down on yourself. But you have to know it's a race to four, and four is a long way to go."

The 21-year-old Karlsson said he won't change his aggressive offensive game at all against the Rangers. And what does he think about the team's lack of experience?

"I'm not worrying about experience," Karlsson said. "I think we got veteran guys in here that have been through a lot. Even the younger guys in here that won down in Binghamton last year, they have a lot of experience from that. Hopefully everybody can help out everybody like we've been doing all season long."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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