Friday, May 25, 2012
East finals: Who will step up in Game 6?
By Scott Burnside
NEWARK, N.J. -- With the ghosts of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals dragging their chains around the edges of the current conference finals between longtime rivals the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, Friday's Game 6 won’t want for drama.
“Where else would you rather be? I don’t think anyone predicted at the start of the season that we would have a chance to play a home game to move on to the Stanley Cup finals,” New Jersey head coach Pete DeBoer said. "We’re in a great spot. We worked awfully hard to get to this point, and where else would you want to be?”
His counterpart, John Tortorella, has seen his team win three elimination games already this spring and remains confident that Game 6 will be a fourth, even though he feels the Rangers might have lost a bit of their focus earlier in this series.
“I thought we lost ourselves a little bit earlier in this series,” Tortorella said. "I think we have a really good mindset right now. I think our team really embraces a challenge.”
Here’s a look at a few players whose presence might help create some fresh history in Game 6:
New York Rangers
Chris Kreider: Remember when a young Alexei Kovalev was such a dynamic part of the Rangers' Cup run in 1994, registering 21 points in 23 postseason games in his first NHL playoff action? Well, we’re not trying to compare collegiate star Chris Kreider to the talented Russian, but Kreider’s impact has been significant this spring. The 19th overall pick in the 2009 draft has five postseason goals and two assists, with two of his goals counting as game winners. Only Brad Richards, with six, has more playoff goals for the Rangers. In the conference finals, Kreider is tied for the team lead with four points. He began Game 5 playing with fellow rookie Carl Hagelin and Richards. Could he be destined for hero status in Game 6?
Brad Richards: No one in the Rangers' dressing room was taking on the Mark Messier role of ’94 and predicting a Rangers victory. But if there is one guy in the locker room who is capable of delivering on such a promise, it would be Richards, a playoff MVP in 2004. Although his game has been up-and-down this series -- he has not scored and added just three assists -- he won a crucial draw to set up the winner in Game 3 and has been involved in virtually every crucial moment in the Rangers' postseason. Tortorella predicted that Richards would play his best game Friday night, and if he does, there’s a solid chance we will return to Madison Square Garden on Sunday night for Game 7.
Henrik Lundqvist: In the three elimination games in which Henrik Lundqvist has played for the Rangers this spring, he has allowed just four goals on 77 shots. He was spectacular in the latter stages of Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators in the first round and withstood a barrage of shots in the second period of Game 7 against the Washington Capitals. He is, however, coming off a tepid performance in Game 5, when he allowed four goals on just 16 shots, including three goals on the first five shots he faced.
“We’re not expecting that again," DeBoer said. "We expect him to have his best game of the series." Playing against longtime nemesis Martin Brodeur in this game -- and a potential Game 7 -- will be a defining moment for Lundqvist.
"You know, I don't think about the last game," Lundqvist said. “During the playoffs, you don't look behind you. You always look forward to the next game. And whatever happens, the last game doesn't really matter.
"That's the way I approach it. But I think a lot of guys do the same thing. When you play, you can't think about what's going to happen, win or lose. You just have to go out there and focus on your job. You play well when you do that."
New Jersey Devils
Stephen Gionta: We could have simply included the entire fourth line of the New Jersey Devils given how dynamic the trio of Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier has been throughout the playoffs. In this series, they have three goals and three assists, including Carter’s game winner in Game 5 set up by Gionta, who also chipped in the Devils' first goal of the game. Their continued hard work in forechecking the Rangers, drawing penalties and chipping in offense has the potential again to be a game-changer Friday night.
“You’re one win away from the final, and we know we’re going to get their best effort,” Gionta told ESPN.com on Friday. “If we stick to our game plan, I think our chances are pretty good.”
Bryce Salvador: Only Zach Parise, who has three goals and three assists in the conference finals, has more points than veteran defender Salvador's one goal and four assists. His 11 postseason points are tied for the league lead among defensemen. Beyond that, he continues to provide the kind of stability in the defensive zone that is crucial to high-pressure games like the one about to unfold Friday evening. He also leads the Devils with a plus-10 rating.
Ilya Kovalchuk: If there was a perception that Kovalchuk was more a "me" guy than a "team" guy, it certainly has been dispelled this season and in particular this spring, as he has battled through a sore back to make key plays at key times. He hasn’t been perfect. He still has the propensity for the careless pass, and there are times he has appeared out of sync. But there he was in Game 5, the first guy on the forecheck late in the third period, making a key play as Carter scored the winner with less than five minutes to play in regulation.
“I’ve said from day one he’s been all in, team first, great teammate,” DeBoer said. “We wouldn’t be here without him.”
Kovalchuk has one of two power-play goals scored by the Devils in this series and insisted he didn’t do anything special on the game winner Wednesday.
“It’s all in the time, now it’s all those little plays that make a big difference, and I was fortunate I ended up in that situation, and I just did exactly what everybody else will do," Kovalchuk said. "That’s what Pete wants us to do, first guy be very aggressive and put the pressure on their D, so that’s what I did."