They say familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers, that saying rings truer than ever. The two clubs have played many memorable games over the years, including the epic 7-game series in 1994 and more recently, the March 19 slugfest at Madison Square Garden. Although there won’t be any immediate fisticuffs at the puck drop tonight at 8 P.M., this series has the potential to be one for the ages.
The Rangers enter the Eastern Conference Finals having taken an unexpectedly grueling path, getting by the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals in 7 games each. The #1 seed in the East, few expected New York to have such difficulty getting to this point, and it would seem they would be exhausted and perhaps a little banged-up after two taxing series, but head coach John Tortorella sounded as if the team was energized, not fatigued when addressing the media after the Rangers Game 7 victory over Washington:
“This is a tremendous experience for us, to be able to play two game sevens in the first two rounds for a young group of guys, it’s a tremendous experience. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the next couple weeks.”
The key for New York will be to somehow find a way to get shots on net. The Devils ferocious forecheck smothered the Philadelphia Flyers high-powered offense in the semifinals, completely neutralizing the tandem of Claude Giroux and Daniel Briere. The duo, despite being eliminated from the postseason almost a week ago, are still tied for the most goals in the playoffs, yet managed to have little impact in the Devils series. That tells you all you need to know about how New Jersey’s skaters swarm the puck.
The Rangers don’t have nearly the pure offensive firepower of the Flyers, but they do have tough, physical players that are capable of grinding it out, and that’s what they will need to do to get the puck into New Jersey’s zone and create scoring chances.
New York will also need Hart and Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist to continue his stellar play. Lundqvist has carried the team during this postseason, and if he continues, he will add the Conn Smythe to his resume. How much the Rangers will need to lean on their star goalie naturally depends on whether they can keep the puck out of their own zone.
On the Jersey side, the key will be to continue the predatory mindset they have regarding the forecheck. In the Philadelphia series, it was as if any play was an opportunity to create something and the Devils often did, with David Clarkson’s goal off an Ilya Bryzgalov clearing attempt a prime example of the way New Jersey’s relentless pressure stunned the favored Flyers. If the Devils can continue to forecheck, pressure the Rangers zone and get scoring chances, their offensive stars like Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise should eventually get pucks past Lunqvist.
Devils head coach Peter DeBoer, who coined the phrase “swarm it up” to signify his philosophy on how his team should play the puck, isn’t expected to make any major changes in New Jersey’s game plan vs. the Rangers. When a team is dominating in the offensive zone like his did in the Flyers series, why would he?
The 2012 Eastern Conference Finals should be intense, hard-hitting and compelling. The cross-river rivalry only adds spice to the pairing of two teams that match up evenly in most categories. It should be, in the immortal words of the Hanson brothers, “old time hockey.”