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Showtime finally arrives for Senators, Rangers

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson figures to draw plenty of attention from the Rangers when the two teams open their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series tonight in New York (Photo by Matthew Healy/OSHC).

In the city that never sleeps, there's an unmistakable buzz in the air.

The kind of atmosphere that, just several blocks away from the bright lights of Broadway, only the arrival of the Stanley Cup playoffs can create. And yes, there might be more than just a few folks back in Canada's capital getting revved up, too.

In the hours leading up to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final series between the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers, the underdog visitors from north of the border were clearly feeling it, too. After four days of waiting, it's finally game on.

"The three or four leadup days to the playoffs can be a little anxious," Senators centre Jason Spezza said following the team's pre-game skate earlier today. "It doesn't matter how many games you've played, you get a little bit of butterflies and nervousness and excitement. That's the fun part, too, because there's not many things in life that can give you the excitement you get by playing in the playoffs.

"I've been excited all week, waiting for the series to start and the (rest of) the guys in the room have been, too. We've tried to keep our same routines and have fun around the rink, but you can tell there's a little more serious tone to it, too."

With all that pent-up enthusiasm about to burst at the seams, it can also be safely said that the opening minutes of Game 1 carry a unique level of intensity. Rather quickly, it becomes obvious this game is nothing like the 82 that preceded it.

"We know that (starting) tonight, it's a totally different season," said Senators head coach Paul MacLean. "No matter what you've done in the regular season, it doesn't matter now. Everybody's game changes, it's more intense and you're playing against the same guy, potentially seven times in a row. It's a totally different time of the year than the regular season."

Added captain Daniel Alfredsson: "The atmosphere and the intensity in the first period, especially during the first round ... it's pretty special. Hopefully, we can come out and weather the storm early. I think (the Rangers) are going to come out pretty hard in the beginning. Hopefully, we can handle the first 10 minutes, still be in pretty good shape and take over from there."

While the records suggest the Rangers (51-24-7) should be heavy favourites over the Senators (41-31-10) in this matchup between the East's No. 1 and No. 8 seeds, the season series between the two — Ottawa won three of four meetings, including both at MSG — indicates a much closer battle. One in which the underdogs are quietly confident they can succeed.

"Compare the two records and they've had a much more consistent season than us," said Alfredsson. "But having said that, we believe we can win some games here, absolutely.

"We know it's a tight league. If you make mistakes and you're careless with the puck, every team in the league is going to take advantage of it. If you're undisciplined, same thing. We want to try to eliminate those two things for ourselves."

Both sides also agree that this will be a physical affair right from the outset.

"It's a whole new season starting," said Senators forward Chris Neil. "We've got to come out and set the tone. We know they're going to come out hard and play hard — they always do. They've got some big boys over there that come at you hard, but you've got to weather the storm and try to take it back at them."

Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson, whose 78 points — tops among National Hockey League defencemen by a 25-point margin — make him a central part of the team's attack, figures to be the target of much of that physical play from the Rangers. But he knows it comes with the playoff territory.

"That's the way it is in a playoff series," said the 21-year-old Swede. "You break down the other team and try to figure out (ways) to be successful. Our game plan is probably similar to theirs, if we look at both, and you've just got to deal with it and stay patient."

That's also good advice for the Senators players — and there are plenty of them on the team's roster — who are making their Stanley Cup playoff debuts tonight. That just adds to the importance of a good start.

"It's very important, especially because we've got some guys who haven't played in the (NHL) playoffs," said Spezza. "When you start on the road, the first 10 minutes is the hardest. It's going to be twice as fast as it is all year and the crowd is going to be into it twice as much as they normally are. You just have to make sure, as a group, you're prepared for it and it doesn't paralyze you, and you're not in awe of the situation.

"It's good to relish it, but you have to make sure you're not in awe of the noise or the speed of the game."

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