Rangers-Devils: New York vs. New Jersey -- Man the Barricades and the Bluelines!
Sunday, February 26, 2017
By Stan Fischler
Having disposed of the Washington Capitals with less ease than the Devils did with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Rangers are ready for The Battle of the Hudson to explode before our very eyes.
Rangers vs. Devils in the Eastern Conference Final; how best to describe it?
"Unbelievable" is Martin Brodeur's word and Mister Goalie knows more than a little bit about the rivalry as does New Jersey's captain Zach Parise.
"It's going to get harder," says Parise, who never has performed in a third-round playoff.
Sure, harder for the Devils and no less challenging for the Blueshirts, who'll open the series at The Garden on Monday.
The Seventh Avenue skaters have several advantages beyond home ice and it all starts with their finish atop the Atlantic Division, which was no accident.
For example, Henrik Lundqvist -- at his career prime -- played some of his best goal against New Jersey; better than his 1.70 goals against average and .937 save percentage which earned him a shot at winning the Vezina Trophy.
By contrast, 40-year-old Brodeur is well past the form that won New Jersey three Stanley Cups, the last of which was a good nine years ago.
But, as he demonstrated against Florida and Philly, Marty is capable of highlight moments. His regular season 2.41 goals-against-average hardly is compelling but he was 1.99 against the New Yorkers.
More important to his coach Peter DeBoer is the matter of Brodeur guiding the Devils to two consecutive playoff series – first Florida, then Philadelphia – and using his savvy to advantage in each instance.
Without a doubt the Devils enter the series significant underdogs, which is precisely the role that they relish.
Starting with the 1995 New Jersey Cup champions, the Garden Staters always have played better in the post-season when given little chance to succeed. In 1995, for example, the Devils opened every one of the four playoff series on the road, yet prevailed.
Apart from Lundqvist's excellence, coach John Tortorella boasts one of the most dependable -- shot-blocking -- defensive units in the NHL and four balanced lines.
The Blueshirts excel in blue collar, dig 'em out hockey. It worked over the 82-game season and continues to work in the playoffs. A New York specialty has been to rebound from a depressing defeat; as happened during the Caps series.
Marquee players such as Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and, most recently, Marc Staal have re-defined "clutch" while fourth-liners such as John Mitchell have delivered above their reputations as well. Moreover, Torts’ Troops have some of the better face-off men and they were decisive against Washington.
The Devils are bringing several assets to MSG, starting with underdog motivation, momentum from their five-game upset over Philadelphia and some critical acclaim from both the media and the Flyers.
"New Jersey played good defense," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, "and they forechecked well. They kept us from playing the kind of game we wanted to play."
My wife, Shirley, has an interesting thought on Devils "defense" and it has more to do with offense. She calls it "The Inversion Theory." meaning that New Jersey has inverted its modus operandi.
"When the Devils were winning all those Cups," Shirley explains, "they had those incredible defensemen such as Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko. They protected Brodeur with incredible defense.
“Now it's been reversed. By emphasizing attack and skating hard all the time, it masks flaws that they might have on defense with no Nieder and Stevens to bail out Brodeur."
Even Laviolette and others on the Philadelphia side agree. "The Devils have a good team," says Claude Giroux, "and very well-balanced."
But are they in the Rangers class?
The following is The Maven's assessment:
*GOALTENDING: Lundqvist is called "The King" and has certified that distinction with his best season. He's super-motivated, never having reached so deep in the playoffs before. Henny also has pointed out that he's getting to the point of no Cup return.
On the other hand, Brodeur has three Cup rings and almost two decades of experience. But at 40, Marty cannot possibly match Henny's reflexes so smarts become Brodeur's prime asset. That has to neutralize the fact that Lundqvist owns the better goals-against average and save percentage. The Devil will be in his sixth Conference Final. This is Lundqvist's first.
*DEFENSE: Early in the season you couldn't name a top New Jersey defenseman because there -- well -- weren't any. But as the season unfolded, with little fuss or fanfare, Bryce Salvador reached a high level of efficiency in his own end both physically and mentally.
When Henrik Tallinder went down for the season and rookie Adam Larsson's game egregiously slipped, Lou Lamoriello dealt for Marek Zidlicky. The Czech blueliner became quarterback on what had been an erratic power play. With Zidlicky's help, the PP improved and the defense tightened.
Anton Volchenkov's plodding style is balanced by solid body checking while Andy Greene and Mark Fayne contribute a calm game. Larsson returned to form -- with assistant coach Larry Robinson's help -- and Zidlicky lifted his game against Philly.
On the Rangers side, defense has been the club's forte. Ryan McDonagh, Staal, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto bring a variety of talents while Anton Stralman has been a revelation both behind his blue line as well as on offense. Very rarely is the aforementioned combo in trouble and often they create offense. Overall, the advantage goes to New York for mobility and strength.
*OFFENSE: Paced by Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac, New Jersey has a Big Three up front that has proven effective in key situations. Checking forwards such as Alexei Ponikarovsky have supplied key goals.
When veterans such as Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus bring their "A" games, DeBoer can ice a variety of attackers. But the most noteworthy change has been the addition of an effective fourth trio.
Stephen Gionta, a career minor leaguer, was promoted from Albany and placed on a Hustle Line with Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter. Their tenacity sprinkled with an occasional goal has enabled DeBoer to give them ice time while relieving his other units. This was the successful formula employed against Philadelphia and, no doubt, will be attempted against New York.
Not that the Rangers lack quality attackers. Gaborik, Richards and Ryan Callahan consistently have delivered big goals and the supporting cast -- Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider -- offers youth, speed and a positive track record.
What matters here is whether the Devils offense can solve Lundqvist, who has essentially had their number for the past few years. At the moment this looks like a draw -- IF Brodeur can keep pace with his younger rival.
*SPECIAL TEAMS: During the regular season the Devils penalty-kill was record-breakingly efficient, yet failed miserably in the opening round against Florida. The unit recovered nobly vs. Philly. Over the season New York's penalty-killing has not hurt the club and often has been among better outfits. Power play outfits, which one would think would be better based on personnel, are essentially a wash.
*COACHING: Tortorella has won a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay and has pressed all the right buttons on his Rangers; which explains why they finished in first place despite endless distractions which began in Europe and concluded with the Outdoor Classic in Philadelphia. He has been nominated for the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year. He previously took the Adams in 2004 after the Lightning took home the Cup. That says plenty.
DeBoer has been exceptional in his own right in his first season with the Devils. But the New Jersey bench boss doesn’t have the wealth of big-game experience Torts possesses.
CONCLUSION: If Kovalchuk is on his game – meaning more plus than minus – and the Devils four lines compete the way they did against Philadelphia, we could have a series. But it all will depend on Brodeur making like its 1994, not 18 years since.
If that’s the case we could have a Game Seven at MSG.