The No. 1 seed New York Rangers and the No. 6 seed New Jersey Devils will clash in the Western Conference Final beginning Monday night at MSG. Here are 10 items for your consideration about this matchup.
1. Rangers defense vs. Devils offense
It's just odd reading that, isn't it? That a New Jersey franchise synonymous with tedium-for-victory is arguably the most exciting offensive team left in the playoffs, and that a New York team will be tasked with stopping them?
At even strength (1.85 goals for/against ratio), the Devils are the best team in the playoffs, to go along with a 20.9-percent conversion rate on the power play. They average 3.00 goals per game to the Rangers' 2.07. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac have been consistently good; David Clarkson, Adam Henrique and Dainius Zubrus have all had their moments.
What they haven't faced: A goalie as good as Henrik Lundqvist. But if the Rangers concede puck possession to the Devils in the same way the Capitals did to the Rangers in the semifinals, New Jersey might have enough weapons running hot to make them pay.
2. Getting Around The Blocked Shots
Then again, the Rangers might just block everything thrown at Lundqvist. They have 267 blocked shots in 14 games, and it's something the Devils have discussed entering this series. From defenseman Andy Greene and Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice:
One of the points the Devils discussed after that 2-0 Feb. 27 loss was getting the puck back to the point men and making sure they stay out near the blue line and aren't sucked in closer to the net — creating less space to move the puck and making it easier for the Rangers' forwards sit back to block shots and help out defensively.
Having the point men stay out higher in the zone would the Rangers' fowards to come out a little.
"They pack it in pretty tight and if you get down at the top of the circles all the sudden instead of being 25 feet away from them, you're five, 10 feet away from them and they're right in the (shooting) lane," Greene said. "If you're higher (in the zone) you can have more room to go either way and it's going to change the shooting lane too."
Again, a lot of blocked shots could indicate a lopsided time of possession. But the Devils can possess the puck from now until the draft and still lose the series if the Rangers' shot-blocking gets in their heads.
3. Lundqvist vs. Brodeur
Lundqvist enters the series second in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in GAA (1.68) and third in save percentage (.937), having backstopped the Rangers to eight playoff wins. Everyone thinks there's a book on Lundqvist — traffic in front, shoot high glove side — but it's less about him than where any butterfly goalie can be susceptible. Regardless, he's been stellar in this postseason.
Brodeur enters this series with impressive stats (2.05 GAA, .920 save percentage, three assists!) and a string of about seven games in which he's been better than he's played for the Devils in several postseasons. The Rangers will do what they can to get him moving laterally and throw pucks in his skates. Brodeur, for his part, believes Lundqvist is the best in the world and casts himself as the underdog. From Steve Politi of the Star-Ledger:
The man who already has won a combined 763 regular-season and playoff games, four Vezinas and three Cups wants to establish this before the Eastern Conference Finals begin: He is, in his own estimation, one hell of an accomplished underdog.
Part of that is the typical mutual-admiration society that forms before every playoff series. But it's also a message to Lundqvist from the Devils' backbone: The pressure is on you, King Henrik, to claim your crown this time around, because everything I do is gravy.
He might be right. But Lundqvist is one to rise to the occasion against top goalies … and Brodeur is still a goalie that keeps you anticipating a soft goal.
4. The Battle Of The Fan Bases
Traditionally, a good number of Devils fans find their way into MSG and a great number of Rangers fans find their way into New Jersey's home rink. Hell, the governor of the Garden State is even an unabashed Rangers backer. In theory, the Devils should have the Rock filled with red since their tickets went on sale before the end of the Rangers' semifinal. But a house divided is never out of the question.
5. Stopping Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk is fourth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 12 points in 11 games, with three of his five goals coming on the power play. Against the Rangers this season, Kovalchuk had four points (2G, 2A) in six games; in the previous season, he had six points in six games. Copious amounts of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal will be required against Kovy, who along with Zach Parise has been the Devils' pacesetter. (Oh, if only Sean Avery were around for this series to torment Kovalchuk …)
6. Brad Richards, Playoff Hero
The Rangers have won eight games in the 2012 playoffs. Richards has points in six of them, and they're not empty stats: His assist to Marian Gaborik won Game 3 in triple-OT; his game-tying goal forced OT in and led to a Game 5 win; in Game 7, he scored the opening goal just 1:32 into the game. Richards has been the Rangers' Conn Smythe leader; they'll need that kind of performance and not the 2 assists in 6 games he had against the Devils in the regular season.
7. Freaky Numerology
This is the first time the Rangers and Devils have met in the conference final since 1994, when the Blueshirts rallied with wins in Game 6 and 7 to advance and eventually win the Stanley Cup. Eighteen years later, a freaky coincidence: The dates for Game 3-7 of this series sync up with Game 3-7 back in 1994. Which means if the Devils and Rangers go seven, the deciding game will be played on Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! Day.
8. The Hate Factor
"I don't think you'll see five guys fighting off the opening faceoff," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan told Pat Leonard of the Daily News over the weekend. "But it's going to be intense. They've been chippy games every time we've played in the regular season. I don't see that changing."
It's a solid prediction. The Devils and Rangers plain don't like one another, from the fans to the top line players. While we probably won't see the off-the-faceoff line brawls we saw in the regular season — as much as the NHL on NBC might dig it — one anticipates some message sending after the whistles and late in games.
9. History Favors The Devils, But John Tortorella Poops On History
The Rangers have played two seven-game series in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 1994, no team has won the Stanley Cup after playing 14 games in the first two rounds. The Devils went seven with the Panthers, and then five with the Flyers.
What does venerable Rangers coach and student of history John Tortorella say about this predictive postseason measure?
"That's a bunch of crap," via ESPN NY.
Devils in 6.
The Rangers have played two grueling 7-game series after a grueling regular season that featured the "24/7" plus Winter Classic taxation. They've played, in the words of my radio partner Jeff Marek, a lot of "heavy hockey." They gutted out a victory against a Capitals team that believed the best defense was no offense, and now face a Devils team that's as offensive as they've had in the playoffs.
Historically, the Rangers have handled the Devils in the postseason, and Henrik Lundqvist has been particularly difficult to solve for the Devils. But if New Jersey exhibits the same kind of offensive depth they had in previous rounds, and Marty Brodeur continues not to be a liability, the Devils will advance to the Stanley Cup Final in six games — 18 years after the Rangers prevented it from happening.
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