Two divisional rivals squaring off in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is always something everyone hopes to see at some point each year. Take, for example, the quarterfinal match-up between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, which absorbed a majority of the postseason headlines at the time. Bitter hatred makes for a better series all together, for both the teams and the spectators alike, and of course the media does its best to amplify the drama to astronomical levels.
Along with the hatred, however, comes a sense of familiarity since the two clubs have met six prior times over the course of the regular season. Loads of scouting must go into preparing for a playoff series against a team from outside of the division, while not so much is the case against a team from within the division, which makes a quick turnaround from round to round a tad smoother in that case.
When it comes to hatred and familiarity, there is plenty of it between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils as they prepare to faceoff in the Eastern Conference Final to decide who gets a shot at winning Lord Stanley's Cup. The rivalry between New York and New Jersey is quite the spectacle during the regular season alone, but where the true animosity stems from is their history of conflicting in the postseason, which has occurred five prior times before this year. But only once before have both teams reached the Conference Finals, which happened in 1994, and everyone knows how that series turned out.
Historical facts will have little significance once the puck drops on Game 1 tonight at Madison Square Garden, however. Each team has had its own unique journey on their way here, but each team deserves to be here, playing for a chance to reach the Stanley Cup Final. This has the potential to be the all around best series of the 2012 NHL Playoffs to date, and here's a complete position-by-position breakdown as to why...
This may be the most self-explanatory goaltending match-up you will see in the postseason, so we shall go right ahead and dive into the statistics here.
The number one seeded Rangers have obviously rode Henrik Lundqvist all season long, qualifying him for both the Hart Trophy as League MVP and the Vezina Trophy as the League's best goaltender. His extraordinary goals against average of 1.68 places him second among the four remaining goalies in the playoffs (Jonathan Quick leads with a 1.55), and remember that is while playing the most games of all four netminders. Lundqvist also has yet to allow more than three goals in a game this postseason and has allowed two or less in 10 of 14 games.
King Henrik is the gleaming reason why the Rangers have made it as far as the third round and will continue to be so if they progress to the final. Do not neglect to factor in that the very best of Henrik Lundqvist seems to come out when going up against the Devils, which has a lot to do with the celebrated veteran manning the cage down the other end.
40-year-old Marty Brodeur has been a name synonymous with New Jersey Devils hockey for what seems like forever. He's led the Devils to three Stanley Cup Championships in his 18-year career and will be making his first appearance in the third round since his last championship back in 2003. He's a sure-fire Hall of Fame candidate when he finally does decide to hang up the skates, which could very well be at the conclusion of this season.
But for now he has a chance to lead the Devils to a fourth Stanley Cup, and he's done a bag-up job in doing so with the journey halfway over with. Brodeur has registered a 2.05 GAA and a .920 save percentage to carry his team past the Florida Panthers in round one and the Philadelphia Flyers in round two.
Those numbers, while good enough for the Devils to advance, pale in comparison to Lundqvist's, which is something Marty is well aware of and even openly admitted.
"Well, I mean, he's a Vezina candidate," Brodeur said of Lundqvist. "I don't know, he's unbelievable lately. He's kind of the top goalie in the NHL right now.
"I'll do my best to try to match up, but it's going to be pretty hard. He's a pretty good goalie."
It's a tooth and nail defensive battle any time the Rangers and Devils meet up, and this series will prove to be no different. The Rangers, though, are very familiar with such match-ups, as they've been apart of two of them already in these playoffs. In fact, each round has gotten more 'defensive' as the Rangers have trudged along here.
They were involved in a tight series with the Ottawa Senators, although slightly more open compared to their seven-gamer with the Washington Capitals. There's been no breathing room for New York when it comes to mistakes on the blue-line, and so far the Rangers have been relatively clean in that respect. That will need to continue in round three, because like the Caps, the Devils prey on turnovers and errors made by the opposition.
They will have their work cut out for them when defending the Devils top two offensive trios; Ponikarovsky-Zajac-Kovalchuk and Parise-Elias-Clarkson (see offensive comparison for more). This is where the Rangers' top four defensemen (Girardi, McDonagh, Staal, Stralman) will all play a large role in this series, just as they have throughout the playoffs. Having to defend Kovalchuk and Parise on two separate lines is a difficult task, but nothing the Blueshirts cannot handle.
Plus, head-to-head, the Rangers' top four defense blow that of the Devils out of the water. They [New Jersey] are solid, and as a unit may be slightly more consistent/reliable than Washington, but they do not have a standout All-Star on defense like the Caps did. Marek Zidlicky and Anton Volchenkov were both injured in the Devils’ clinching game against Philadelphia, actually, but both are expected to play tonight.
Something of note from the regular season was that the Devils' defense often times had trouble containing the speed of the Rangers, especially Carl Hagelin. Defense is where the Rangers have the biggest advantage in this series, and in a closely played match-up such as this one, that advantage may play out to be bigger than once believed. The Rangers win with defense, while the Devils sometimes do and sometimes do not.
Rangers must take advantage here.
As always, the Rangers' offense will be a major question going into this series. New York totaled 14 goals against the Capitals in seven games during round two, which ironically is the same total posted against the Senators in round one. So it's a safe bet that the Rangers should be expected to pot somewhere around 14 goals against the Devils too, give or take, meaning they will have to rely on the defense and goaltending to allow less.
That's not necessarily saying that the Rangers cannot expose this Devils team defensively, however. Speed was mentioned as a struggle to defend for the Devils above, and this is why both Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider can become x-factors in the series. Hagelin often ignites his line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, while Kreider does the same with Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan. In a tight series, these two have the ability to break things open and help their respective lines generate offense, which is key since those respective lines happen to be the top two for New York.
And also don't forget that the Rangers could be getting both, if not one, of Mats Zuccarello and Brandon Dubinsky back in the lineup at some point in this series. That adds greatly to their offensive depth.
Offense will not come all that easy against the Devils, as the Rangers learned during the regular season, so any pressure created by any of the four lines must result in pucks getting to Brodeur in net. The Rangers lead all playoff teams in missed shots with 172, which is something that has been previously discussed on this blog. With Brodeur's numbers average at best, the Blueshirts must bombard him with pucks from all angles.
Making it even more key for the Rangers to take advantage of opportunities is the fact that they will struggle to match the firepower of New Jersey's offense otherwise. Ilya Kovalchuk has 5 goals and 7 assists for 12 points in the playoffs, and has easily been a top performer among all teams in the postseason. He's explosive, he has a wicked shot (wrist and slap) and doesn't need help to generate offense, even though he often receives it anyway. Like they did with Ovechkin, the Rangers must isolate Kovalchuk, which is something Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh did very well during the regular season. The Rangers will be Kovy's toughest challenge of the playoffs yet, so it will be interesting to see how he responds.
And then there's captain Zack Parise to back him up, who is a world class hockey player in his own right. Plus, beyond Kovalchuk and Parise, the Devils receive plenty of secondary contributions from the likes of Travis Zajac, Alexei Ponikarovsky, rookie Adam Henrique, Patrick Elias, and of course the pesky David Clarkson. New Jersey is a very deep team offensively, more so than they have been in recent years. This is where they hold an advantage over their New York rivals and how they will have to win this series.
It will be critical to gain leads in these games for the Rangers, because they certainly do not want to be playing catch-up with the Devils all series long. If they can find ways to do that, they have the clear advantage both in net and on defense to protect leads and ride them to victory. All together, there's no debating that the Rangers are the better team in this match-up, but it's going to be a tight series regardless.
Since the previous two have for the Rangers, I think this series, too, has a high chance of reaching a seventh game. But if the Rangers can effectively execute the gameplan night in and night out, they may be able to oust the Devils quicker than many predict, and earn a one-way ticket to the Stanley Cup Final as a result.
This one's going to be a lot of fun.