NEW YORK - Flat out, Craig Anderson holds the key to the Senators’ success.
If he can match or outperform Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, they have a decent chance of extending their surprising season.
But two other factors also loom large for Ottawa in an opening-round playoff series that starts Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
A) Can the team’s hot and cold offence stay at least lukewarm?
B) Can the young and inexperienced Senators avoid making detrimental mistakes?
To cover those bases, we look at Milan Michalek and Jared Cowen.
This is really Michalek’s first post-season tournament as a Senator. Two springs ago, he tried to bite his lip and played through a serious knee injury. He couldn’t do it. Michalek made an early exit from the one playoff game against Pittsburgh, then headed to the doctor for reconstructive surgery.
“I knew it wasn’t 100%, but I didn’t know (reinjuring the knee) could happen so easily,” said Michalek. “It did, unfortunately.”
Michalek, an effective player in many areas who led the Senators this season with 35 goals, is often referred to as a streaky scorer. (What sniper isn’t, right?) While he gets them in bunches, he also has gone through 12- and seven-game droughts since January and went goal-less in the last three games of the season.
The solid-as-an-oak Czech has been pretty consistent away from Scotiabank Place, however. He scored 22 goals on the road to nearly keep up with league leader Steve Stamkos’ 24.
Michalek, who doesn’t get as much media attention as fellow stars Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson, needs to do enough to warrant scrums in New York.
His production in playoffs as a San Jose Shark was modest. In 40 games, he had 10 goals and six assists.
But now he’s 27 years old, and a heavily relied-upon player for the Senators.
“I just want to play good every game, hopefully we can win some games,” said Michalek. “It’s going to be satisfying for me if we win this series.”
Cowen, one of three Senators to play in all 82 games, flipped back and fourth between the second and third pairings much of the season. In practice this week, he was alongside Sergei Gonchar, meaning he could be looking at Top 4 minutes in this series.
That’s heavy responsibility for a rookie, and that’s just fine with Cowen.
“I like that,” said the 21-year-old, who’s had big-game experience in the WHL playoffs, world juniors and last season during Binghamton’s run to a Calder Cup championship.
“Playoffs is different. There’s no lack of motivation to play every shift hard. The more you play, the better it is. Just in the game way more. It’s more fun for sure, especially in playoffs. I enjoy it.”
Cowen is by far the most physical Senators defenceman, especially if Matt Carkner doesn’t play. In fact, Cowen’s presence is all that keeps Ottawa’s blue line from being considered marshmellow-soft.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Cowen will relish butting heads with New York centre Brian Boyle, a 6-foot-7, 244-pounder.
“I like playing those guys,” said Cowen. “When I compare myself to them in matchups, I ask myself what kind of advantage they have over me. It’s definitely not size, because I’m big as well, and I think I’m a pretty good skater for a big guy. There’s not a lot of big guys I don’t like playing against. It’s going to be an interesting playoff.”
With the potential of extending into Round 2 should Anderson, the offensive leaders and the youth on the team rise to the occasion.