I'd open this by saying that the day has finally come in which the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils open the Eastern Conference Finals, but it's only been one full day since the Blueshirts knocked off the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of that semifinal series. Therefore, there hasn't been much opportunity for the lead-up hype to expand, but then again, a Rangers-Devils match-up in the Conference Finals surely does not need it. It is widely known what's at stake and which team has what advantages, so it's best for both clubs that this thing get started as soon as possible.
But to give a proper introduction, tonight at Madison Square Garden, the puck will drop on the series that will determine who is crowned Eastern Conference Champions as well as who will be contending for the Stanley Cup in June. The Rangers and Devils have each had their respective journeys in reaching this point - the final four for the 2011-12 season - but the past is exactly that come 8 p.m. this evening. Regular season meet-ups, altercations, drama is all forgotten and thrown out the window. In essence, this begins a new season for both teams involved as their focus will be on this series and this series only.
For a complete position-by-position breakdown of this series, be sure to read the blog's column from this morning. But for now, the attention shall be appointed to Game 1 and what it means for each club.
The Rangers can look at tonight's contest in one of two ways. They can see it as a disadvantage that the turnaround between Game 7 of round two and Game 1 of round three is only a day while the Devils have been resting and practicing since the middle of last week, or they could see it as an advantage since they already are in a game-mode mindset.
Knowing this team and coach John Tortorella, they will most definitely be going with the latter option there, taking positives out of this situation they are in to better motivate themselves for this game. No one feels sorry for anyone in the postseason, so there is no time to whine about this. The Rangers need to regroup here, forget about Washington and worry about grabbing a 1-0 series lead against the Devils in front of a pumped up Madison Square Garden crowd. They did so last round and will want to do so again tonight.
New Jersey, meanwhile, will look to take care of a hopefully fatigued Rangers team with their potent forecheck that's made them so successful in the postseason. Remember, the Devils have been anticipating this game for nearly a week now, so they must be chomping at the bit to get this thing started. They hate the Rangers, the Rangers hate them, and each team will want to finish the other as quickly as possible. It's as simple as that.
It's key that the Rangers play a clean hockey game tonight, though, which includes discipline. At times during the Washington series, they got away with playing lackadaisical hockey without paying a price. The Devils are far too skilled up front to give them free scoring chances, and a tired Rangers team has a strong tendency of doing exactly that. Again, it's not definite that the Rangers will be feeling the physical effects of this quick turnaround, but there's no denying that the Devils are a well rested hockey club right now.
Offensively, pucks need to be thrown on net from everywhere. As discussed in the series breakdown, the Devils defense is not outstanding; good, but not outstanding. Creating havoc in the crease area and forcing Marty Brodeur to be active after a week's rest can and will benefit the Blueshirts greatly.
Tonight's lineup is expected to remain the same as it was for the Rangers on Saturday in Game 7, although Mats Zuccarello is getting closer and closer to returning.
New York Rangers Lineup