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. The Rangers shutout the Devils 2-0. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
SB Nation New York hockey writers Jimmy Hascup (Rangers) and A.J. Manderichio (Devils) debate how they think the NHL Eastern Conference Finals will turn out
SB Nation New York has had writers covering the local hockey scene all year. Now that the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers will be facing off for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup, AJ Manderichio and I have decided to throw together a little question-and-answer type post to add a little more insight to the series.
We've been following -- AJ, the Devils, and myself, the Rangers -- as diehard fans all season, and it's beneficial to gauge the pulse of our teams as the Eastern Conference final starts Monday.
Let's take a look at some of the topics we discussed:
1) Takeaways from the six regular-season games played between these teams.
DEVILS (AJ): If the regular season showed Devils fans one thing, it's that, for the first time in a few years, these two teams are back on equal footing. Henrik Lundqvist still owns New Jersey, posting a career 25-11-5, 1.79 GAA, .936 save percentage and six shutouts against the Devils. Pretty impressive numbers. But, in five starts this season, he won just three games. It seems like New Jersey is starting to figure out how to get to Lundqvist.
The Rangers technically won the series, getting an extra point in a shootout loss. The regular season showed these teams are evenly matched. The Devils advantages can be neutralized by the Rangers' stifling defense, and the Devils shut down the Rangers top scorers. Both goalies played well between the pipes. For the first time in a few years, it seemed like the balance of power began shifting away from the Rangers.
RANGERS (Jimmy): I think, if anything, these games reinforced how much these two teams hate each other. Between line brawls and the penalty minutes racked up in each one -- there was at least 30 (and then some) in every game but one -- the Devils and Rangers proved that they will make for a great postseason series, even if the regular season doesn't mean much. Composure will be key for each side: If you get caught up in all of the extra-curriculars there's always that chance the other team makes you pay on the power play and there's a chance some disciplinary action could be handed out.
Even though I put very little credence on game-by-game in the regular season, I think the Rangers showed they're the better team, if ever so slightly. So they earned just one more point, but recall a flukey loss on Jan. 31 when the Rangers had the game in the bank and until an innocent dump-in turned into a carom right to David Clarkson for the game-tying goal in a game the Rangers lost in a shootout. Also recall Feb. 7, a 1-0 Rangers loss, when the Rangers had a goal called off with 3.5 seconds left on a controversial goalie-interference call.
2) Takeaways from the postseason: What's encouraging? What is worrisome?
DEVILS: This postseason has shown a balanced Devils attack, and has made New Jersey one of the most dangerous offensive teams remaining. It all starts with the forecheck. Against the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey established a forecheck early, forcing defenders to make quick decisions and keeping their best offensive weapons inside their own end. That led to more shots, more opportunities and, obviously, more goals. It also helped having Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes. That forecheck seems to be clicking, and if New Jersey can establish that early, the Rangers may be in trouble.
Martin Brodeur will once again come under some intense scrutiny in this series. He was good, not great, in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. He's still letting in some soft goals, and sometimes routine plays become an adventure. He unquestionably gives the Devils an advantage in experience. Brodeur has been to the conference finals before, and knows what he needs to do to win. But will he be able to steal a game? That is yet to be determined.
RANGERS: The Rangers have shown time and again that they won't deviate from the structure put in place by John Tortorella. They played a grinding, playoff-style game all season long, and even though it took them seven games in each series, they've kept an even keel after thrilling wins and difficult losses. Further, the Rangers' physical, body-on-the-line style is not one teams enjoy playing against and their shot-blocking prowess can be very annoying for opposing teams.
This one's an easy one: goal scoring. The Rangers have had to put a heavy reliance on Henrik Lundqvist and their defense because they haven't really been able to break out this postseason. In their last series, they scored 15 goals, 12 over the last six games. This team has to scratch and claw for most of its goals, and that means it's not a group that can easily put points on the board. Plus, the power play has been dreadful, so it hasn't helped pick up the slack.
3) What about the opposition makes you worry, and what makes you optimistic?
DEVILS: The biggest worry for Devils fans is the way the Rangers defense plays. They collapse around Lundqvist, creating what seems like an impenetrable shield. Combine that and one of the best goalies in the league (yes, that one hurt to say), and you've got a team that doesn't allow many goals. With the shot-blocking capabilities of the Rangers defense, offense will be hard to come by.
Establishing the forecheck, though, will help neutralize that advantage. If New Jersey can wear down the Rangers defense, it will come unglued. At some point, one of them will make a mistake. Washington never tried to forecheck as hard as the Devils do. That may eliminate that advantage, and open up some opportunities for New Jersey.
RANGERS: The fact the Rangers can't key on one guy, like they could most of the time with the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin. With the Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk will be the focus, but then you have the all-world talent of Zach Parise, skilled players like Patrik Elias and a streaking Travis Zajac, along with skilled agitator Clarkson, who has found his scoring touch this year. Tortorella likes to "line match" and he relies heavily on a shortened bench as the game winds down. It makes it tougher to do this when the Devils can throw out a balanced attack that has goal scorers on each line.
The Caps employed a similar shot-blocking, collapsing style to the Rangers making it difficult to get shots through and even tougher to create offense. The Devils don't make as concerted an effort to do the same thing, so that could be a benefit to the Rangers, who haven't had a ton of free shooting lanes or close-range chances. Plus, the Devils' defense can be exploited, and the Rangers wear teams down with the way they forecheck and cycle the puck down low.
4) Who scares you the most from the opponent's side?
DEVILS: The scariest part of the New York Rangers is their defense and goaltending. Yes, they have marquee forwards, like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. The Devils defense already shut down one of the best offenses in the league, holding many of the Flyers big guns to under five points. Breaking down the Rangers defense is tough enough. They're big, physical and love to block shots. If New Jersey can break that defense, they still need to deal with Lundqvist, who time and time again makes the big save. Goals will be tough to come by, and the Devils will need to avoid getting frustrated by the play of the defenders and Lundqvist.
RANGERS: Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils have a well-rounded offense, but Kovalchuk is simply a game-changer with the size, skill and shot to be a thorn in the Rangers' side. He's also extremely tough to defend because of how big he is, and the only way to have success with him is to be physical. Plus, he's rolling right now with five goals and seven assists in 11 games, after a 37-goal, 83-point regular season. He's an even bigger reason to stay out of the penalty box, as he had 10 goals and 29 points in the regular season with two goals and three assists already in the playoffs.
5) Why will the Devils/Rangers win?
DEVILS: These aren't the New Jersey Devils of the trap days. This team is more willing to play offense, forecheck aggressively and make something out of nothing. At any time, Devils head coach Pete DeBoer can send out one of his four lines, and they can pop one into the back of the net. Often in the playoffs, you need those secondary scorers to win a series. The Devils have got that, with players like Dainius Zubrus, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Steve Bernier stepping up to score big goals at one time or another. That depth is the foundation for any Stanley Cup winning team, and the Devils have it established. If they continue to stick to their system, I think you'll see the Rangers stout defense slowly but surely wear away. New Jersey can frustrate them into making mistakes and, in the end, create opportunities to take down their Hudson River rivals.
RANGERS: Overall, this is a team that has been consistent all season, losing three games in a row twice all year. The overall body of work -- even through the playoffs -- suggests this team plays a winning style. Even though it hasn't been displayed this postseason, the Rangers have the ability to score on all lines, their attention to defense is what sometimes stifles their offense. Also in the Rangers' favor is that the Devils took seven games to dispatch the Florida Panthers, a team many thought was a good story but certainly was a very weak playoff team. Plus, the Philadelphia Flyers, like Florida, also pay no attention to defense. This is the real dose of defense the Devils will face all postseason.
AJ: DEVILS in 7
Jimmy: RANGERS in 6