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Ottawa Senators' Milan Michalek (R) celebrates a goal with teammate Erik Karlsson during the third period of an NHL hockey game against Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Florida March 6, 2012. The Senators face the Newe York Rangers in the first round of the NHL playoffs. REUTERS/Mike Carlson (Mike Carlson/Reuters)
Ottawa Senators' Milan Michalek (R) celebrates a goal with teammate Erik Karlsson during the third period of an NHL hockey game against Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Florida March 6, 2012. The Senators face the Newe York Rangers in the first round of the NHL playoffs. REUTERS/Mike Carlson (Mike Carlson/Reuters)

SEAN GORDON

Why the Senators have reason for optimism Add to ...

Perhaps it would be useful at this juncture to point out the Ottawa Senators have owned the New York Rangers on enemy ice the way hedge-fund types acquire trophy houses in the Hamptons – effortlessly, almost absent-mindedly.

Since the 2004 lockout, the Sens are 11-2-1 at Madison Square Garden, where they haven’t lost since October of 2009, and are carrying a five-game winning streak in the self-proclaimed world’s most famous arena.

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So, still think it unfortunate that Ottawa slipped to eighth place in the Eastern Conference on the final day of the regular season?

The Rangers will surely be a stout test for a Sens squad that has lost three straight to close out the season – that high-pitched beeping you hear is Ottawa backing into the postseason.

But this is a squad with self-belief, unburdened by expectations – an underdog all year, the Senators are comfortable in the role.

“We’ve won the games we needed to win all year long,” captain Daniel Alfredsson pointed out last week after a loss to Boston. “We’ll be ready [for the playoffs]”

For the Senators and Rangers, that means Thursday at MSG for Game 1, with the second contest taking place Saturday.

The visitors will feel optimistic about their chances of upsetting the conference champions, on whom they have largely feasted this season – it might be a stretch to say the Senators are a lock beat the Rangers, but nobody should be overly surprised if they do.

”I’m not worried about us, I think we’re going to have our structure and intensity where we need it to be,” Nick Foligno told reporters after Saturday’s 4-2 loss to New Jersey.

Ottawa holds a 3-1 edge over New York in the season series, having outscored the Rangers 12-5 in their victories (starter Craig Anderson was in goal for two of them; backup Ben Bishop beat New York 4-1 in their last meeting).

The Rangers are no powder-puff opponent, having fallen only one win short of the regular-season NHL crown, and count battle-tested veterans like Stanley Cup winners Brad Richards (a former playoff most valuable player) and Mike Rupp in their midst. And if the Senators have had their way with the Broadway Blueshirts in Manhattan, the same is not true in Ottawa, where the home team in the match-up is 6-9 since the lockout (they snapped a seven-game win streak at Scotiabank Place earlier this year).

The Rangers are also backstopped by heavy Vézina Trophy favourite Henrik Lundqvist – the stylish Swede has never advanced past the second round, and will be strongly motivated to correct that situation.

They also have a quartet of young defenceman – Ryan McDonaugh, Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto and Stu Bickel – who have a combined 27 games of experience in the postseason.

First-line sniper Marian Gaborik hasn’t played beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2003, linemate Carl Hagelin is a playoff rookie.

Ottawa has its share of inexperienced players as well, although youngsters like Jared Cowen, Erik Condra, Colin Greening, Zack Smith and Jim O’Brien were part of an AHL champion Binghamton squad last year.

None of the abovementioned is meant to cast the Rangers as anything but prohibitive favourites in the series – the point is this one should be worth paying attention to.

In fact, optimists among the team’s fans will tell you their team is due for another winning binge.

Including last week’s dip, the Sens have five losing streaks this season of three or more games. But they also have four winning streaks of four or more.

Starting goalie Anderson, who led the Colorado Avalanche to the postseason two years ago (the only playoff appearance of his career), said the focus is resolutely on what’s ahead.

”Right now, we have a fresh slate. What happened in the past three games, and really the last 82, is behind us. We have a fresh start. Everyone starts at zero wins and zero losses and that’s our mindset,” he said Saturday. “We have to win four before the other team wins four.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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