After narrowly escaping their first two series in the 2012 Playoffs, the Rangers face a familiar foe in the Eastern Conference Finals in the New Jersey Devils. The two teams have taken different paths to get to this point, but this series has all of the makings of a classic series: divisional rivalry, recent regular season and playoff history, and of course each team is only four wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup. Here is how the Rangers-Devils matchup breaks down:
Forwards: The Devils have a lot of depth up front, and that has been a key to their success in playoff upsets of the Panthers and Flyers. Ilya Kovalchuk has been a force in the playoffs, with 12 points, and line mate Travis Zajac has 10 points through the first two rounds. Captain Zach Parise and David Clarkson headline the Devils’ second line, and rookie center Adam Henrique and veterans Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus add scoring on the 3rd line.
For the Rangers, a lot has been made about their lack of scoring in the playoffs, but they have the pieces to find a way to score timely goals. Brad Richards has been the Blueshirts’ most consistent scorer in the playoffs, and has been clutch, scoring the game-tying goal in Game 5 against Washington with 7.6 seconds in regulation, and the first goal in Game 7. Marian Gaborik has 3 goals in his last five games, including a triple-OT winner, but the Rangers need their secondary scoring to improve in order to beat the Devils. While players like Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan are valuable in all three zones, they had trouble scoring against the Capitals, and Carl Hagelin didn’t have a point in nine games before assisting on both Rangers goals in Game 7.
Defensemen: The last time the Devils were in the Eastern Conference Finals, their defense corps included Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski, and Ken Daneyko. Needless to say, this group of Devils defensemen doesn’t have the same pedigree, but by no means have they had problems performing in the playoffs. As a group, their offense is limited, but they have been solid, led by the top pair of Andy Greene and Mark Fayne. Bryce Salvador has scored two of the four goals that the Devils’ defensemen have had in the playoffs (one empty netter), and mid-season acquisition Marek Zidlicky has played well at both ends of the ice while averaging over 24 minutes of ice time per game in the playoffs.
For the Rangers, head coach John Tortorella has relied heavily on his top four defensemen in the playoffs. The top pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have been effective all season in shutting down the other team’s best players, and Marc Staal has returned to the level of play that made him an all-star a season ago. Michael Del Zotto has also been impressive in his first year in the playoffs, leading Rangers’ defensemen with 8 points, and scored the game winning goal in Game 7 against the Capitals. As a group, the Rangers’ defensemen have 8 goals in the playoffs, including 3 from Anton Stralman, and an OT game winner from Staal.
Goalies: The goaltending matchup is undoubtedly the headline of the series. It’s a battle between the old lion and the young lion, the best goalie of all-time against the best goalie in 2011-12. On one end, Martin Brodeur has seen and done it all. He has raised the Stanley Cup over his head three times, won four Vezina Trophies, and although he turned 40 a week ago, has still played at a high enough level to get his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. He was also a rookie goaltender the last time these two teams met in the Eastern Conference Finals eighteen years ago.
On the other end, Henrik Lundqvist has been nothing short of sensational since the start of this year. His numbers in the first two rounds are staggering (1.68 GAA, .937 save percentage), and he has played at his best when the Rangers have needed it the most. However, although in his 7th season, this is the first time Lundqvist will be playing past the 2nd round of the playoffs.
(Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE)
Final Analysis: The Devils have the makings of a team that can win the Stanley Cup. Under head coach Peter DeBoer, the team has flourished, playing a system that can win night in night out, and with depth up front, they provide a strong challenge for the Rangers. However, the Rangers’ resiliency throughout the season and especially in the playoffs can’t be understated. It might not look pretty, but they have found always found a way to get the job done. If Brodeur can carry his team to the Finals, it would only add to his legend, but if you ask him, the greatest of all-time will say that his rival is the best in the league right now.
Prediction: Rangers in 7