|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
And so it comes down to a clash between two longtime neighbors to see which Eastern Conference team will punch its ticket to the Stanley Cup finals.
The New York Rangers, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, have taken the hard way to the conference finals, going the seven-game maximum against both Ottawa and Washington. They won't get much of a rest after defeating the Caps 2-1 on Saturday night with Game 1 of the conference finals set for Monday night at Madison Square Garden. The well-rested New Jersey Devils haven't played since Tuesday, after handling the favored Philadelphia Flyers with relative ease in five games. The Devils, flying well under the radar this spring, won four in a row after dropping the series-opener against Philadelphia and were dominant in shutting down the Flyers' high-octane offense. This will mark the third time since the lockout the two teams have met in the playoffs, with the Devils sweeping an opening-round series in 2006 and the Rangers evening the score two years later in the first round. The last time they met in a conference final was the legendary set-to in 1994 that featured Mark Messier's guarantee of victory.
1. Role Reversal: After scoring four times in their opening game against Ottawa, the Rangers have gone 13 straight games without scoring more than three goals. They are averaging just a hair more than two goals a game. That isn't likely to change in this series, given the strength of the Devils' team defense, so the Rangers, who went 6-5 in one-goal games this spring, will have to continue to rely on top netminding from Henrik Lundqvist and their own solid defense. Against Washington, the Rangers allowed just 13 goals in seven games. The Devils, however, will present a different challenge than the Caps, as they are averaging three goals a game and have four lines that have the potential to score. New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer has separated captain Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, and that worked like a charm against Philadelphia. David Clarkson, Adam Henrique and the ageless Patrik Elias provide an impressive supporting cast up front and the Devils have been getting unexpected offensive pop from defensemen Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky, who have three goals and nine assists between them. Keeping pace with the Devils' offensively will present a major challenge to the Rangers. And, in fact, will likely be central to the Rangers' chances of advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals since 1994.
2. Fatigue: Take a look at the top three players in this year's playoffs in terms of time logged on the ice and you'll see a trend: They're all New York Rangers. Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal rank 1-2-3 in total ice time played. The Rangers also rank second in the NHL in blocked shots, and it's no surprise that Girardi and McDonagh rank first and second, respectively, in that category among all playoff performers. At some point, then, does fatigue become a factor for those core members of the Rangers blue line? The Devils will be rolling four lines and trying to disrupt the Rangers defense as they did against Philadelphia. So far, so good for the Rangers' workhorses, but if this, as expected, becomes a long series, watch for possible wear and tear on the big three on the Rangers blue line.
"We play Monday and it's a quick turnaround, so we have to make sure we're ready for that. It's an incredible feeling to get another one [series] and to be there and have the opportunity, for sure," Staal said.
3. Power Outage: The Rangers power play went 0-for-5 in Game 6 and then was denied on its lone opportunity in Game 7 against Washington. The Rangers came up with just four man-advantage goals in the series, two of those in the dramatic overtime win in Game 5. Reversing that trend will be a challenge against a Devils team that negated a powerful Philadelphia power play in the second round. The Rangers have allowed at least one power-play goal in eight of 14 postseason games. The Devils, meanwhile, scored a power-play goal in four of their five games with the Flyers. Perhaps more important for them is that after struggling with their penalty-killing unit during the first round against Florida -- allowing nine power-play goals in seven games -- they tightened up significantly during the Flyer series. The Devils, who set a modern-day record for penalty-killing efficiency during the regular season, killed 16 of 19 penalties against the Flyers.
The one guy the Rangers are hoping will get hot with the man advantage is Marian Gaborik. It's hard to be ultra-critical of a guy who scored a triple-overtime game winner and set up the winning goal in Game 7 against Washington, but it's also fair to suggest the Rangers will not prevail over the Devils if Gaborik doesn't do more. Gaborik has yet to score on the power play, and after scoring 41 goals during the regular season, the Rangers have a right to expect more from him. Gaborik has played mostly with Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin, and it's been Richards who has proved to be the team's go-to guy this spring. Last summer's biggest free-agent signee scored on the first shot of Game 7 against Washington and now has 15 points in the past 11 games in which his team has faced elimination.
4. Kovy's World: One of the best lines to come out of the Devils' locker room following their series finale against Philadelphia was by Ilya Kovalchuk, who noted that for the first time since breaking into the NHL he wasn't going to be playing at the world championships, always a disappointing end to the NHL playoff season. Funny how a year ago, when the Devils missed the playoffs, there was much talk about whether the $100 million contract signed by Kovalchuk, and the attendant mess a first-contract effort brought, was worth it. Not so much talk about that now, as Kovalchuk lit up the Flyers for a pair of goals and five assists in spite of missing one game with a nagging back injury. He has 12 points in 11 games and is a threat to score or create a scoring chance on pretty much every shift. He leads all NHL forwards in average ice time per game and John Tortorella will have to find a way to try to neutralize him. Throughout the regular season there was a seismic change in the way Kovalchuk was viewed as a player and a teammate. This spring has only added to the perception of Kovalchuk as a winner and a team-first guy.
5. The Greatest vs. The King: Goalies can say they don't play against other goalies all they want, but anyone who has followed the intersecting paths of the two New York-area netminders of record knows it's always something special when Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur play against each other. Throw in a berth in the Stanley Cup finals as a reward and the goaltending matchup here will be something special. While Brodeur is the man with the three Cup rings and the four Vezina Trophies, Lundqvist seems to take it as a personal challenge every time the two meet. And, at least in the regular season, it has been no contest, as Lundqvist has dominated play between the two, compiling a 23-7-5 record with a 1.61 GAA and .941 save percentage. Brodeur, who turned 40 during the Philadelphia series, has been very good this spring, although occasionally there are some chaotic moments around the Devils' net. He boasts a 2.05 GAA and .920 save percentage. Lundqvist? He's been out of this world with a 1.68 GAA and .937 save percentage, giving the Rangers a clear edge.
• Dan Girardi-Ryan McDonagh vs. Ilya Kovalchuk: Which way will coach John Tortorella go with his shutdown pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh? Our guess is he will start them against the Ilya Kovalchuk line. It should be a great battle.
• New York Rangers' Ryan Callahan: Callahan has just one goal in his past 10 playoff games. If the Rangers are going to keep pace with the Devils, they are going to need more depth scoring, and the captain will have to be part of that.
• New Jersey's Dainius Zubrus: After going seven games without a point, Zubrus got hot, chipping in two goals and three assists in the final four games against Philadelphia, including a game winner in Game 4. His continued strong play enhances the Devils' chances of advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals since 2003.
• The Rangers have expended an awful lot of energy to get to the Eastern Conference finals, and the Devils are simply getting better as the playoffs go along. And they have too much offense for the Rangers to keep pace. Devils in 6.