GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad will look across at the Ottawa Senators on Thursday and see many familiar faces wearing a uniform he wore for four seasons. What he won't see is a familiar team.
"They play a lot different from when I was there," Zibanejad said.
The Senators play with structure, a staple of all teams coached by Guy Boucher. They play with discipline and patience. They play with great spacing, especially through the neutral zone. They leave very little room to operate with a 1-3-1 forecheck that clogs the middle of the ice.
That's what the Rangers are up against in the Eastern Conference Second Round, which begins with Game 1 at Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
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"The key is you try not to let them be set in that," said Zibanejad, who came to New York from Ottawa in a trade on July 18. "We just have to make sure we get focused on our game. Obviously we have to adjust a few things to how they play, but we have to have them be more aware of what we do than we're aware of what they do. We have to try to be dangerous out there."
Dangerous, yes, but patient and intelligent as well.
"It's not going to be perfect getting through there and making it tough on them," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said.
That doesn't mean the Rangers can't try. It doesn't mean the Rangers won't be successful at playing their game, which is predicated on quick breakouts and generating speed through the neutral zone to get chances off the rush. It just means they can't force the issue.
"We know simple is probably the best option; one or two passes maybe at the most, but make sure you get it behind them and you've got guys going with speed," McDonagh said. "If we can allow ourselves to play well in our own end, not spend a lot of time there, we can maybe catch them away from their structure in the neutral zone."
Defenseman Marc Staal said the game plan the Rangers need against Ottawa is similar to what teams used to have to utilize when they played the New Jersey Devils, who were known for giving up very little room in the neutral zone and were good at forcing turnovers.
"That's the reputation Ottawa has," Staal said. "They're stout defensively. They don't give you much. They play a patient game. That's like New Jersey was."
The Rangers worked extensively trying to break Ottawa's neutral-zone forecheck in practice Tuesday.
They had their five black aces, including forward Matt Puempel and defenseman Adam Clendening, set up in the Senators' 1-3-1 formation. The Rangers worked on controlled breakouts and zone entries.
If the pass was there they tried to make it, but nothing longer than 10 or 15 feet and always tape to tape. They didn't put passes into space and try to skate onto the puck. If the pass wasn't available, they dumped it in the corner, away from the goalie.
The Rangers made sure not to hesitate with the puck or try to skate it through the middle. That's a sure way to give up turnovers against Ottawa.
"It's easy to say just make sure you get pucks deep. But honestly, they [make it hard] because of how they support each other in the neutral zone, and if you just start rimming it around to the goalie or chipping it in with nobody coming it's going to be easy breakouts for them," forward J.T. Miller said. "I don't think getting it in is the issue, but getting it to where we can come up with it I think is definitely something we worked on."
Coach Alain Vigneault said the Senators' structure is only part of what makes them a difficult opponent.
Vigneault said he watched all six games Ottawa played against the Boston Bruins in the first round and the last three games they played against the Montreal Canadiens in the regular season (March 18-19, 25), when the Senators were still in contention to finish first in the Atlantic Division.
He said the Senators' skill level and transition game stood out.
"They're coming at you," Vigneault said.
Their offense clearly starts with defenseman Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner Vigneault called the most offensively skilled defenseman in the NHL. But he basically said it would be wrong to underestimate Ottawa's overall offensive ability.
If the Rangers need an example for how effective the Senators can be, all they need to do is look at the player they know best, center Derick Brassard, who was sent to Ottawa in the trade that brought Zibanejad to New York.
Brassard led the Senators with eight points in the first round. That's four more than Zibanejad, who was the Rangers' leading scorer against the Canadiens.
"I'm definitely going to tell all of my players that [Brassard] for the next two weeks is not their friend," Vigneault said. "There will be no tapping of the butt as he goes by on the ice. [Brassard] has been a very good player for them and we're going to have to play him hard and play him smart.
"We've got our hands full."