While divisional foes Los Angeles and Phoenix are on the verge of their first all-time playoff meeting, Hudson River rivals New York and New Jersey will be taking part in their sixth series since first meeting in the 1992 postseason. The Devils have lost four of the five previous head to head matchups, including the epic 1994 Mark Messier-driven Eastern Conference finals. Like 1994, we expect this third round series to be drawn out over the maximum seven games.
New York Rangers (1) vs New Jersey Devils (6)
Season Series: New York 3-2-1; New Jersey 3-3-0
New York, MarchApril (Playoffs): 11-9-1 (8-6)
New Jersey, MarchApril (Playoffs): 13-5-2 (8-4)
New York, leading playoff scorer: Brad Richards: 6 G, 5 A, 11 Pts
New Jersey, leading playoff scorer: Ilya Kovalchuk, 5 G, 7 A, 12 Pts
Outlook: Any predictions of the New York Rangers wilting due to the strain of consecutive seven-game series should be tempered by the fact that this team has hardly been affected by lengthy postseason travel and will open up a series at home for the third consecutive round. Much like their style of play, the Rangers' overall playoff campaign hasn't been as pretty as it has been simply effective, and you kind of get the feeling that the Rangers are a slow-to-accelerate machine capable of dragging out a long series before winning in seven games. They've already done it twice thus far.
While New York led the league in hits during the regular season and blocked more shots than any other team in Round 1, they're going to need to revisit these fundamentals if they're going to shut down New Jersey. Dan Girardi led all defensemen with 30 blocked shots after the first round, though he only blocked 17 against Washington in Round 2. He and Ryan McDonagh lead all active playoff participants in ice time no other skater is within a full minute of Girardi and McDonagh's roughly 27 and a half minutes of average time on ice and the two defensive stalwarts will have to disrupt New Jersey's swift offensive zone entry. New York forwards will also be called upon to impede New Jersey's progress through the neutral zone, an effort that becomes slightly more daunting with Brandon Dubinsky's absence from the lineup with a foot injury. His status for the start of the series is unclear, so strong skating two-way forwards Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan will need to do everything possible to impede New Jersey's speed and strong transition game.
Marian Gaborik is a conference finals participant for the first time since his Minnesota Wild were swept in four games by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003, and he'll be looking to further his strong second round series against the Capitals. With three even strength goals in Round 2, including a triple overtime Game 3 winner, he has been clicking extremely well with Brad Richards, who leads the team with six goals and eleven points.
11 of 14 Rangers playoff games have been decided by only one goal, including 10 games decided by scores of 3-2 or 2-1. Each of the final six games in the Washington series was decided by either a 3-2 or 2-1 score. In other words, Henrik Lundqvist has been terrific when New York has needed him to be. His 1.73 GAA and .936 save percentages are no surprises, and as long as the Rangers don't take a hit in special teams in this series they're in the middle of the postseason pack on both the power play and the penalty kill no deviation from that standard should be expected. New York could still stand to see better results on their penalty kill, as the fifth-ranked regular season unit was only 7-for-10 over the final four games of the Washington series.
Let's get something straight. These aren't your father's err older brother's Devils. This isn't a vintage late-90's methodical New Jersey squad that uses impeccable goaltending and a near robotic cadence that exploits its opponent's mistakes. While the goaltending remains solid Martin Brodeur is 8-3 with a 2.05 GAA in the playoffs and has improved as the postseason has progressed this is a much more up-tempo Devils team that advances the puck quickly, battles relentlessly, and has relied on its top players to support a balanced offensive attack. We had pinpointed Ilya Kovalchuk as our X-Factor prior to the Philadelphia series, and he didn't disappoint, leading all skaters in the series with seven points in five games. Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and David Clarkson have also recorded at least eight points in their 2012 playoff campaigns, as the net-crashing, pesky Clarkson has found a second wind deep after his breakthrough, 30-goal regular season. The Devils also boast strong offensive depth, with veteran wingers Danius Zubrus and Petr Sykora surrounding Calder Trophy nominee Adam Henrique. Stephen Gionta is a valuable, versatile two-way forward who has chipped in with four points and a plus-four rating in an effective two-way depth role despite limited minutes.
Defensively, the Devils are more similar to Los Angeles and Phoenix than they are to New York in their ability to cut down on time in their own zone while showing good life in bringing the puck up the ice. Bryce Salvador has been among the better even strength defensemen in the playoffs and leads New Jersey with a plus-eight rating to go along with a healthy two goals and six points. The elusive, fleet-of-skate Marek Zidlicky has aided the Devils' efforts in advancing the puck and isn't afraid to tee the puck up on the power play. His 24:39 of average ice time is a team-high.
The extended break between series came at the right time for New Jersey, which will be at full strength when Game 1 rolls around Monday night. Zidlicky and Anton Volchenkov were banged up after absorbing hits in Game 5 against the Flyers, and both are expected to play normal minutes: Zidlicky will see most of his time with Salvador, while Volchenkov will slot in alongside rookie Adam Larsson, who has stepped in for Peter Harrold in the lineup.
And that, of course, begs the question: which team's position is more enviable, New Jersey's or New York's? The Devils were playing as well as just about any team in the postseason before they had to shut down their operation for five days to allow the Rangers-Capitals series to conclude. Are the Devils capable of immediately jumping back in with a high caliber of play when the puck drops Monday? Or will the Rangers benefit from no lengthy hiccups in the schedule and the momentum surge from winning a Game 7?
"It's hard to get here. You look at the board in our room and you're used to seeing 30 teams up there. Tonight there will be four," New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer told Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger on Saturday.
"This is a hard level to get to and a hard stage to get to. You're also close enough to the end that you can almost see it there. You want to make sure you take full advantage of the opportunity."
X-Factor: Dan Girardi, New York Rangers. Along with defensive stalwarts Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh, Girardi is part of the top-heavy stay at home core of Rangers blueliners that will be tasked with slowing down New Jersey in Round 3. If Girardi is able to force Devils stars Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Adam Henrique to the outside while getting his stick in the way of passing lanes and improving his shot blocking numbers from the second round, the Rangers will book a trip to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1994.
Prediction: New York in 7. The Devils are the hotter team right now, but the Rangers are built to grind through long, tough playoff series, and we don't see this one finishing in four or five games.