Although it may not be as surprising as the Kings making to the Conference Final, I certainly didn’t see the New Jersey Devils getting a chance to play for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. The New York Rangers, despite two very hard fought series, are proving there was good reason they captured the #1 seed in the East. So for this series, get ready for a tough, muddy Atlantic Division battle.
As just mentioned, the Rangers just came out of two grueling seven game series against the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals. Are they going to be getting tired or will they be able to stay in a groove after only having one day off? The Devils, on the other hand, beat the Flyers handily in 5 games and have had plenty of rest leading up to the start of the series tomorrow night. The question for the Devils, as it is for any team in their situation, is whether or not the rest will negatively affect them in Game 1.
It’s tough to gauge the Devils. They looked terribly slow and worn down by their previous series in Game 1 in their series against the Flyers before making changes and dominating the rest of the series. They were terrible at faceoffs and the penalty kill against the Panthers, and then they looked great against the Flyers. Brodeur looked like the old Brodeur in a good portion of the series against the Panthers, but looked really blah at times against the Flyers (although he didn’t have to be any better than that).
There’s one word in my mind that won the series against the Flyers for the Devils: adjustments. They changed up what they were doing against the Flyers and Philly never responded. Maybe the Flyers’ style just played into their hands, but how the Devils respond to various looks the Rangers throw at them will largely determine how the series unfolds.
The Rangers play a defensive style that sees them collapse in their own zone and block anything that they can. Anything that gets through, they feel that Henrik Lundqvist is capable of saving and with the support from the five skaters on the ice, they can collect and clear the rebounds. When the Devils set up in the offensive zone and move the puck around is not really when they’re at their most dangerous. They scored on Philadelphia for the most part when the Flyers had a breakdown defensively. I don’t see the Rangers making those same mistakes. Defensemen like Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonaugh, Michael Del Zotto, and for the most part Marc Staal just don’t make those mistakes. The forwards don’t either.
The Devils are a puck support team, in all three zones. When a player is ready to hand the puck off, there’s always a teammate there to accept it. They don’t allow themselves to get outnumbered. One of their big advantages is how their big forwards effectively use their bodies in heavy traffic and puck battles; these are guys like Dainius Zubrus, Travis Zajac, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and David Clarkson. If the Rangers can’t answer the physical play of the Devils, or at least win some puck battles, they’re going to have trouble moving the puck into the offensive zone. Although I did say that the Rangers don’t break down very easily, the longer the puck is in your zone, the more you increase your chances of making a mistake.
The Rangers have a Vezina trophy favorite in net in Henrik Lundqvist. He’s an excellent, excellent goalie, but if you take away his ability to track the puck, even the best goalies can’t stop what they can’t see. Lundqvist tends to play a little deep in his net, so the Devils really need to get sticks and skates as well as bodies in front of him. He’s susceptible to deflections, even if they happen up high. The Rangers love to block shots and are a good positional team, but the Devils can neutralize that by creating scoring chances right off the faceoff in the Rangers’ zone.
Martin Brodeur is a slam dunk Hall of Fame goalie, but his best days are behind him. His rebound control can be below average at times and tends to give up some bad angle goals along the ice. As good as his puckhandling skills are and how much that helps his defense efficiently clear the puck up the ice, they can get him into some serious trouble. Expect at least one bad turnover per game from Brodeur, and if the Rangers are up on their skates, that could be tough for the Devils to overcome. The plan for the Rangers has to be to just throw the puck on net at his feet and then crash, crash, crash. There will be rebounds and the traffic in front of Brodeur will get him frustrated.
I’m picking the Rangers to win in 6. I was largely unimpressed by the Devils against the Panthers and the Flyers were just dreadfully bad against them. That doesn’t mean they didn’t do things well and they certainly won’t be a pushover, but the Devils have given up the game’s first goal in their past four games and simply cannot afford to do that against the Rangers. New York can play tight games and I don’t trust the Devils defense against a counterattack team like the Rangers to consistently keep them at bay. Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik have been playing well, but I think there’s more offense waiting to burst under the surface. A few quick goals early on could allow the Rangers to take control of the game and eventually the series.