Sunday, May 13, 2012

PREVIEW: #6 Devils vs. #1 Rangers

Torts?  Angry?  Get used to this sight.

"When we play our game, nobody can beat us."

You see that quote above?  That was Ilya Kovalchuk earlier this season.  Head coach Pete DeBoer insisted that the Devils are an "elite" team, and he proclaimed that many months ago.  DeBoer seems to be the most liked Devils coach in years.  This could be the best Devils team in years.  The next 4-7 games will play a huge role in determining if these Devils are as good or better than the last championship team in 2003.  Round 3 of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs are about to begin, and of course, it's Devils-Rangers for a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Finals.  *Whew.*  Take a deep breathe everyone.

So how did both of these teams get here?

As you probably know by now, the Devils needed a second overtime of Game 7 to beat a pesky Florida Panthers team in the first round of the playoffs before dismantling a fatigued Flyers group in five games to advance to the Conference Finals.  The Devils have excelled playing 5-on-5, as they're scored 24 of their 36 goals this post-season 5-on-5, and they've surrendered 13 goals against 5-on-5.  That 1.85 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio is the best of the 16 playoff teams.  Basically, the Devils will succeed if they stay out of the penalty box and continue their dominant forechecking game.

Proof that it is, in fact, possible to score on Henrik Lundqvist.
True to form, nothing comes easy for this year's edition of the New York Rangers.  This isn't your "older brother's" Rangers, who boasted the likes of Shanahan, Jagr and mega-free agents (although they rely on Gaborik and Richards for much of their offense).  This is a very hard-working, "blue-collar" hockey team that likes to play physical and wear down their opposition.  They ran into two opponents who have tested them to the brink of elimination, in #8 Ottawa and #7 Washington, but the Rangers squeaked by both series in seven games each, and now face the Devils in the Conference Finals.  The Rangers have scored 19 times 5-on-5, while allowing 17 this post-season so far.

Matchup at-a-glance:

Remember this?  This series will!!
These two teams met six times in the regular season.  Like Devils-Flyers in the second round, each team won three of the six games.  Minus empty net and shootout goals, the Rangers outscored the Devils, 11-10 in the six games.  22 goals in six games, combined.  Yes, this will be a very low-scoring series.  It will also be a close series.  While each team won a 4-1 game during the regular season, all six games were either tied or one-goal games in the third period at some point.

The two teams also play similar, yet different styles.  They're similar in the sense that both teams play strong two-way games and their forwards are very defensively responsible.  They defend in much different ways.  The Devils defense starts with their forechecking game.  They've become a puck possession team under Pete DeBoer.  They like to own the neutral zone and prevent shot attempts on goal from ever occurring.  The Rangers are a bit more passive, as they also trap in the neutral zone (yes, I said "trap"), but they focus much more on blocking shots and collapsing around the net.

Devils vs. Rangers - rewinding to the regular season:

December 20th, 2011: Rangers 4, Devils 1 - Despite being division rivals, December 20th was the first meeting of the season between them.  Travis Zajac's first of the season opened the scoring, and the Devils held the 1-0 lead for nearly 22 minutes of play.  The Rangers tied it late in the second period on a goal by Artem Anisimov, and then benefited from a lackluster third period by the Devils, including Carl Hagelin's shorthanded 2-on-1 goal.  They scored two goals plus an empty netter to beat the Devils, 4-1.

January 31st, 2012: Rangers 3, Devils 4 (Shootout) - The Devils exploded out of the All-Star break, and it started with a dramatic come-from-behind win over the Rangers.  They trailed 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, but rallied each time.  The third tying goal came with under a minute remaining in the third period following a lucky bounce from a dump-in by Andy Greene to David Clarkson.  Ilya Kovalchuk's shootout goal was the lone goal of the shootout and the Devils got the two points.

February 7th, 2012: Devils 1, NY Rangers 0 - This matchup was a classic Brodeur vs. Lundqvist goalie duel, and the veteran Brodeur won this round.  Marty made 30 saves, half of which came in the third period.  David Clarkson's first period power play goal was the difference and the Devils kept on rolling out of the All-Star break, despite some late-game controversy over a goalie interference call on Marian Gaborik.

February 27th, 2012: Devils 0, Rangers 2 - This was perhaps the most uneventful game of the season between the teams.  The Rangers outshot the Devils, 15-13.  For the game.  Both teams had more penalty minutes than shots.  Carl Hagelin's short-side shot beat Brodeur in the first period, which was the only goal against a goaltender in the game.

March 6th, 2012: Rangers 1, Devils 4 - The Devils played their most complete game of the season series in this particular matchup.  The Rangers were sloppy in the first and third periods, and the Devils got to Henrik Lundqvist a few times in this one.  Ilya Kovalchuk struck in the opening minute, which was one of 5 first period shots by him.  The Devils scored three in the third period to win, 4-1.

March 19th, 2012: Devils 2, Rangers 4 - The final matchup of the regular season featured goals by the Rangers early in the first and second periods, which set the tone for the game.  The Devils scored twice down by two goals, but never sustained enough pressure in this game, as Lundqvist, who wasn't great on either goal, didn't get tested much at all.

Special teams:

Another major factor in this series will be special teams.  Both teams are comfortable 5-on-5, but there's bad blood in this series, so there will be some penalties.  The Devils did a great job of not getting caught up in "extracurricular" activities against the Flyers, so repeating that effort against the Rangers would be beneficial to them.

These two guys like to score [on the power play].
In the regular season, the Devils' power play went 2-for-18 against the Rangers and they killed off 12-of-13 Rangers power plays against.  The Devils allowed one shorthanded goal in the season series.  In the playoffs so far, the Devils' power play is 9-for-43 (20.9%), while the Rangers, who have drawn the most power plays of any playoff team are 9-for-57 (15.8%).  Two of the Rangers' power play goals came very late in the third period of Game 5 and early in overtime in a dramatic win over the Capitals.

The Devils re-gained form with their penalty kill in their second round series against the Flyers.  Two of the biggest penalty kills of their season came in overtime in Game 3, a game in which they later won.  After allowing nine power play goals to the Florida Panthers in the first round, they killed off 16-of-19 Flyers power plays in the second round.  Overall, the Devils' penalty kill has allowed 12 power plays on 46 chances (73.9% penalty kill).

The Rangers penalty kill has been consistently good in the playoffs.  They did falter four times in the first round and four more times in the second round, but they've effectively killed off 82.6% of their penalties.  They were shorthanded just once in Game 7 against the Capitals.

Advantage - Devils

Rest vs. fatigue?

By Monday night, when Game 1 gets under way, the Devils will have rested for six days.  Their defense got banged up in Game 5 against the Flyers, but it looks like everyone should be ready to go for Game 1 at Madison Square Garden.  The Devils, who were the oldest team in the NHL this season (on average), expect to benefit from the rest.  Consider their 9-1-1 start after the All-Star break and after a long layoff between the end of the regular season and start of the first round, the Devils had 26 shots on goal in Game 1 against Florida in an eventual win.  If there is any rust, it'll be gone by the second period of Game 1 against the Rangers.

The much younger Rangers do not have the luxury of rest.  They will get a total of one day off following their Game 7 against the Capitals.  They have played 14 games already this postseason, including one game that needed three overtimes.  The Rangers will be ready to go for Game 1, but later in the series, fatigue could certainly become a factor for a team that plays a very physically demanding brand of hockey.

Devils vs. Rangers - by position:


On paper, the Devils appeared to be overmatched by the Flyers in round two, but the exceptional two-way play of the Devils forwards and the tenacious forecheck made them the better team.  The Rangers' defense is much more suited to face the Devils' forecheck, but honestly, the Devils' forwards will present the Rangers with their most difficult challenge yet.  The Devils have top-end talent, but roll four lines deep.  They have been getting four lines of offense this postseason, and that's done wonders to keep the top end players like Kovalchuk, Parise, Elias, etc. at the top of their games.

The Rangers also have a deep lineup, and they've gotten a boost from rookie Chris Kreider, who's fresh out of college.  The Rangers' forwards are also solid two-way players, and they have game-breakers in Gaborik and Richards.  Rangers forwards block more shots than the Devils as well.  The Rangers don't have as much raw talent as the Devils, but they still have a solid group of forwards.

Stephen Gionta.  Just because...
In the regular season, the Devils had seven forwards over 40 points, while the Rangers had four such forwards.  The Devils had five players over 20 goals, the Rangers had three.  One player who's always been a thorn in the Rangers' side is Patrik Elias, who put up 78 points in the regular season, but has just 5 points in 12 playoff games this year.  Watch out for Elias.  For the Rangers, Carl Hagelin (8 points in 6 games against the Devils) and his speed could be the difference.  He's been relatively quiet in these playoffs, but he was forced to sit out three of the games due to a suspension in round one.

Overall, the fact is that the Devils have scored nearly a goal per game more than the Rangers (and yes, I understand that five of those games were against the Flyers), so until they prove otherwise, the Devils have an edge in this department.

It's also worth noting that the Devils may get Jacob Josefson back in the lineup soon and Brandon Dubinsky could be back for the Rangers in the series.

Advantage - Devils


Both the Devils and Rangers suffered significant injuries to defensemen at different points this season.  Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder missed extended periods of time (Tallinder is still out and probably done for the season), while Marc Staal's season debut was January 1st's Winter Classic.  Both teams have good defensemen, but neither have any "superstars."  Yet.

The Devils have a strong balance of puck-moving defensemen and shutdown defensemen.  They even have three right-handers in their lineup this year!  Bryce Salvador has been a rock for the Devils all season.  Despite missing the entire 2010-11 season due to a concussion, Salvador was the team's best shutdown defenseman all season, and he's elevated his play in the postseason.  The biggest surprise has been his offensive contribution.  After scoring no goals and nine assists in 82 regular season games, he's put up two goals and four assists in 12 playoff games.  Marek Zidlicky also has six points for the Devils this playoff season.

Youngsters Adam Larsson and Mark Fayne have also stepped up for the Devils.  Fayne has been one of the more under-appreciated players on the Devils, especially late in the regular season and into the playoffs.  Anton Volchenkov also bounced back from a horrific first round by having a solid second round series against the Flyers.  Andy Greene's return from injury has also stabilized the Devils' blue line.

Like the Devils, the Rangers have some very talented young defensemen.  Ryan McDonagh plays almost every other shift for the Rangers, and he's quickly becoming one of the best shutdown men in the league.  Dan Girardi is also a rising star on the Rangers blue line and Marc Staal's play has improved as the season has progressed (his season started late due to a concussion).  Another young defenseman, Michael Del Zotto, has had an up-and-down season for the Rangers, but he's currently third on his team in points this playoff season.

Rounding out the Rangers' defense are Anton Stralman and Stu Bickel.  Stralman, of course, tried out for the Devils this past fall, but failed to make the team.  He's been a decent addition to the Rangers' lineup since and has chipped in offensively as well.  He scored a goal against the Devils in the regular season.  Bickel is a physical player, but averages just 4:55 of ice-time through 14 playoff games (when you're not taking a shift in a game featuring six periods, such as Game 3 against Washington, you know you're in trouble).

While the Devils have one of the NHL's more underrated defensemen, the Rangers have the edge here.  It's a lot closer than people think, but McDonagh, Girardi and Staal are all excellent in their roles.

Advantage - Rangers


It's hard to sit here and say that Martin Brodeur is the lesser goaltender in a playoff series, but that's exactly the case at this point.  Henrik Lundqvist is the backbone of the Rangers in a way that not even Brodeur was to the Devils in his prime.  The Rangers do trap a lot and they block more shots than any other playoff team, but when it's all said and done, the Rangers rely on Lundqvist as much as any team in the Eastern Conference relies on a goaltender.  They don't give him many goals to work with on most nights, so he's got to be sharp or his team doesn't win.  It's pretty much that simple.

Lundqvist and Brodeur could not be any more different if they tried.  Lundqvist's defense block a ton of shots.  He's not a guy that challenges shooters by playing aggressively at the top of his crease.  He sits back in the net and gets that extra split second to react to shots.  If the shot isn't blocked, chances are he'll make the save and not allow generous rebounds.  The Capitals said that his "weakness" was high, glove side, but the combination of shot-blocking defensemen in front of him and (dare I say it) bad ice at MSG don't allow many shots to get elevated on him.

Marty is really gonna miss Sean Avery in this series.
Brodeur, on the other hand, isn't a butterfly goalie as Lundqvist is, and he doesn't want his defensemen to block a lot of shots.  The Devils did bring in Anton Volchenkov, who is annually one of the NHL's leaders in blocked shots, but other than him, Brodeur likes to face shots.  The difference is that the Devils take away shot attempts in different ways.  Brodeur plays the puck so much that it's hard to dump and chase against the Devils, even with the trapezoid, and the Devils are so good in the neutral zone that it's hard to set up cleanly.

Brodeur played some of his best hockey this season against the Rangers.  He won three times, shut the Rangers out once, had a 1.99 goals against average and .916 save percentage in six games.  Lundqvist always plays the Devils tough.  In 5 games this season, his goals against average was a mere 1.41 and his save percentage was .940, with one shutout.

Marty will play well in this series, but Lundqvist has the advantage on paper.

Advantage - Rangers

Now for some Devils-bias:

I've kept this pretty neutral for the most part, so here's my homer section.

I'm sick of hearing about how 2012 is like 1994 for the Rangers.  Guess what?  1994 was 18 years ago.  There's nobody left from that team still on the Rangers.  The Rangers have been nothing more than a mediocre franchise since then (one trip to the Conference Finals - 1997), while the bitterness of that loss for the Devils propelled them to three Stanley Cup championships and four trips to the Cup Finals, plus a stretch of nearly a decade where the Devils dominated the Rangers in the regular season.  Since the debacle in 2008, the season series has been very close between the Devils and Rangers.  When these two teams match up, both teams usually bring their A-game.  It's a huge rivalry, as you know.  We genuinely hate them, and they hate us.  Tortorella and DeBoer have re-fueled the fire in the regular season, so this might rank up there with the all-time great series in both teams' franchise histories when it's all said and done.

I want the Devils to crash the Rangers' party.  Over the past few weeks, the Devils have won six of seven playoff games and have peaked at the right time.  There's the "special" element with these Devils, just as the Rangers have played the "special" card all season.  Look: the Rangers can be defeated.  The Devils will be their biggest test yet, and I think they can do it.

It's our time.  Let's win four of the next seven and get back to where the Devils belong: the Stanley Cup Finals.


At this point, I won't pick against the Devils.  I said Devils in 5 over Florida, and the Devils won in 7.  I said Devils in 7 over Philly, and the Devils won in 5.  I'll go Devils in 7 over the Rangers.  They've been a good road team all season, and they'll take advantage of a Rangers team that's played 14 games already in the playoffs.  The Devils' forecheck dominated the Flyers, and while the Rangers are a completely different team than Philly, the forecheck will wear down the Rangers' defense.  The Devils will need to take advantage of their power play chances when they come.

If they stay out of the penalty box, forecheck and keep puck possession while crashing the net on Lundqvist, they can beat him.  The Devils will be able to match the Rangers' intensity and Brodeur will continue to play strong, as he did against the Flyers in round two.  It'll be a close series for sure, but for everyone who says the Rangers have something "special" going, the "special" effect is there with this Devils team.  The Devils are peaking at the right time this year.