NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 27: Henrik Lundqvist #30 and Brian Boyle #22 of the New York Rangers defend the net against David Clarkson #23 of the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden on February 27, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
There's one simple key to beating the New York Rangers: breaking down their stout defense.
Easier said than done.
New York has been one of the best defensive teams this postseason. Forwards routinely collapse lower in the zone, and the team forms a shield around all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Most shots never get through to the net, and when they do, the Rangers have the skill necessary to make the best of saves.
The New Jersey Devils know all about that. In three of their six regular season meetings with their rivals, they were held to one goal or fewer. In a 2-0 loss to the Rangers on February 26, New Jersey generated just 13 shots on net. The New York defense blocked 16 shots in that win.
"One thing we have to do is make sure we use the whole offensive zone and make sure we're changing sides a lot so we can try to get guys out of (shooting) lanes and whatnot," Devils defenseman Andy Greene told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "It's easier said than done and they've done a great job not only in the first two rounds, but they've been doing it all season long. We've got to get pucks through. We've got to pucks past that first guy."
That won't be easy. The Rangers have blocked 267 through the playoffs, easily dominating that stat. The Devils, who enter with 131 blocked shots, know that establishing the forecheck will lead to opportunities.
"We've just got to worry about ourselves in here and keep the forecheck on, keep playing the same way," right wing David Clarkson told Gulitti.
Defense is only one-half of the equation. Behind that staunch defense is Lundqvist, who is 8-6 with a 1.68 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in the postseason. He's continued to excel against the Devils in his career, posting a 25-11-5 record with a 1.79 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in 41 starts. He's also blanked New Jersey six times, and carries one postseason shutout into the series.
Devils captain Zach Parise knows that beating Lundqvist may be the toughest challenge.
"Probably getting some pucks by (Henrik) Lundqvist," he told Gulitti. "They're a very defensive team. They pressure you all over the ice. They do have breakdowns from time to time and most of the time he's there to bail them out."
In his playoff career against the Devils, Lundqvist is 4-4 with a 3.10 goals-against average, .888 save percentage and no shutouts. That success hasn't lent itself to a specific formula for how to beat the Rangers goalie.
"Obviously, you have to have traffic, try to screen as much as possible," Patrik Elias told Gulitti. "But, then again, you have their five guys and a couple more of you, us, and then all of a sudden where the puck's going to go. So you have to find a way. Maybe spread them out a little bit at certain times. You have to react to the game. Certain plays you have to get the puck on the net quick. Get the shots quick. Then at different times shift, maybe take a little extra time."
"I think for us it's going to be very important to create a lot of traffic in front of these guys, because it's not a secret he plays butterfly style and he will go down every time," Ilya Kovalchuk told Gulitti. "So I think he's kind of similar with (Ilya) Bryzgalov, those two guys. So I actually like to play against him. And it's a great challenge to play against the best, and we'll take the challenge any day."
It will certainly be a challenge. To move on to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Devils will need to break down a seemingly impenetrable defense and an all-world goaltender. In a season where they weren't picked by most to make the playoffs, it's just one more step toward proving the experts wrong.