Less than 48 hours after defeating the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of their second-round series, the New York Rangers host the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference final series beginning Monday.
The Rangers enjoyed their best season since they won the Stanley Cup in 1994, tallying 109 points. But the regular season means nothing for any team, other than seeding them for the Phase 2, which is what really counts when all is said and done. To put it in perspective, the Rangers are the only No. 1 seed still in the playoffs -- the Phoenix Coyotes are a three-seed, Los Angeles Kings an eight-seed and the Devils are a six-seed. New York also had its hands full in its first two series, to the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators and No. 7 Capitals, going seven games in both. Parity, though, is what makes the NHL playoffs so unique. The top teams don't always play like the best one in the playoffs; oftentimes, it's the teams who are hot that find the most success.
One of the hottest teams in these playoffs -- definitely in the Eastern Conference -- is the Devils. New Jersey ended its season with six straight victories, then parlayed that momentum into the playoffs, even though it took then seven games to knock off the shaky Florida Panthers. It took the Devils only five games, winning four straight, to eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers in their last round.
With all of that in mind, let's take a look at the keys to the series from the Rangers' perspective -- a mindset their coach John Tortorella only operates by.
1) Henrik Lundqvist: Quite simply, the Rangers have scratched and clawed for many of their wins this postseason. They aren't a high-scoring group. There's a lot of energy expended throughout the lineup on defense and to create offense. Even with such a stout backend and attention to defense, New York goes nowhere without Lundqvist in net. The coaching staff rested him more this season for just this time of year. It has paid off so far as the netminder has a 1.68 goals-against average and .937 save percentage, making a myriad of spectacular saves. If Lundqvist struggles, the Rangers will too from the pure standpoint that they aren't a quick-strike offense.
2) Power play: It's cliche to simply say the Rangers need to score more. That would certainly lessen the burden on their defense, Lundvist and their fans. What New York needs is for its power play to come through. Eleven of their 14 games, six of the seven in their last series, have been decided by one goal. New York has scored on 15.8 percent of its power plays this postseason, the worst of the remaining playoff teams and right on par with its regular-season numbers, though they have by far the most opportunities, 57. New Jersey has been a penalty-prone team, with 46 in the playoffs, taking four or more in six of its 11 playoff games. The good part for the Rangers is that the Capitals blocked so many shots and clogged so many shooting lanes. New Jersey doesn't play defense quite like that.
3) Health ... and "fatigue factor": Fatigue is a concern for many, as Tortorella likes to stick to three lines after the first period and rely heavily on five defenseman. Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal are 1-3 in ice time this postseason. But I'm not the biggest believe in the fatigue factor -- these guys are well-conditioned athletes and they're pretty young. What concerns me more is staying healthy with how physical the Rangers are. They throw their bodies on the line in all situations: from their hitting, blocking shots and down-low work. Brandon Dubinsky has been sidelined with a lower-body injury since Game 7 of the first-round series. Ryan Callahan missed last year's playoffs with a broken foot after blocking a shot. This group has decent depth within the roster, but not a lot to just insert into the lineup. An injury to a key player could be devastating.
4) Ryan Callahan: Everyone wants to point their finger at Marian Gaborik and the fact he hasn't been the impact guy a 41-goal scorer during the regular season would suggest. But he has 10 points and four goals this postseason, second on the team. He also was very engaged in Game 7, despite just recording an assist. The bigger problem is Ryan Callahan, who had 29 goals (second on the team) and 54 points during the regular season. The winger has only three goals and six points this postseason, with just one goal and an assist coming in the tightly-contested series with the Capitals. What's on his side is that he's getting chances, he's just been a bit unlucky in the scoring-percentage department; his rate is 7.3% (4.2% against the Caps with 24 shots on goal) compared to 12.3% in the regular season.
5) Physical defense against Ilya Kovalchuk: Tortorella likes to speak about the defense's success in limiting the time and space to other teams' stars. The Devils have a more balanced offense than the Capitals did, but the Rangers were able to keep Ovechkin in check for the most part, despite his three goals. When he scored, the Caps won. But the Rangers also shut him down in all of their victories, none no better example than Game 7 when he was limited to just two shots on goal. Kovalchuk has 12 points (five goals) in 11 games and he's even more of a game-changer than Ovechkin is at this point. The only way to defend him is to get in his face and make him feel uncomfortable by being physical. New York will need its other defensemen not named McDonagh, Girardi or Staal defensemen to step up and make it a group effort because the Devils also have Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson to worry about. That's what will make this more difficult on the defense than the Washington series did.