NHL Playoffs Predictions – Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Devils Rangers
NHL Playoffs Predictions, Eastern Conference Finals Preview: New Jersey Devils Vs New York Rangers – Marty Brodeur Vs Henrik Lundqvist, Kovy + Parise Vs Gaborik + Richards
The Eastern Conference Final of the 2012 NHL playoffs features the top-seeded New York Rangers and their cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils. The Rangers took the 8th-seeded Ottawa Senators and 7th-seeded Washington Capitals to seven games, but clawed out an appearance in the finals with shot-blocking and goaltending. The Devils struggled with a mediocre Florida Panthers team in the first round before destroying the Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia Flyers in the second round with a dominant forecheck and solid goaltending. It’s going to be a fun final between two bitter rivals from the best division in hockey.
New York Rangers Vs New Jersey Devils
The Rangers and Devils split a bitter season series that included opening face off brawls, Pru Center bounces off the boards to David Clarkson, and a goalie interference call in the final seconds of a 1-0 game. With Cam Janssen and Eric Boulton riding the pine for New Jersey, we likely won’t have the same bare-knuckled goonery that defined the regular season series, but don’t expect a timid series either – these teams hate each other and Ryan Carter is still out there with a target on the back of his head. Neither team is overly physical, but that never seems to matter in this series.
No team has ever won the Stanley Cup after playing the first two rounds to a Game Seven. The Rangers will tell you their first round struggles make them battle-tested, but my honest opinion is it makes them exhausted more than anything. The Devils played a “battle-tested” series with the Panthers before picking apart a talented Philadelphia Flyers team. Rested, they carry a ton of momentum into this series whereas the Rangers barely got by. Momentum, energy, and confidence will all be on the Devils side in a very even series. That said, home-ice advantage is a great equalizer for pre-series momentum, and nothing is quite as fun as a Game Seven win.
It’s hard to point to the Devils performance against the Flyers as proof of any kind of advantage in this series, particularly after the Flyers got swept this season by New York. However, it is certainly evidence of the difference in the level of play the Devils have put forth of late. An even series in the regular season wasn’t even close in the postseason because of the dynamic forechecking of the New Jersey Devils. The pressure they applied crippled the Flyers and could do the same to the Rangers, particularly if New York shows any signs of fatigue from their fourteen-game postseason adventure. Does New York have an answer for this energized, dynamic, consistent forecheck?
Momentum: New Jersey Devils
The New York Rangers seem to have a goaltending advantage in recent years, with Henrik Lundqvist dominating the Devils. However, Martin Brodeur was 3-3 against the Rangers this year and Lundqvist was 3-2. Both goalies allowed fewer than two goals per game, with Lundqvist’s save percentage and GAA only marginally better than Brodeur’s for the series. With the winningest goalie in hockey history (even a Rangers fan would have a hard time arguing that) riding what could be his last chance to win another Stanley Cup, the Rangers barely have an advantage here. In fact, Brodeur’s heroism in Game Seven of the first round against countless open shots in the third period and first overtime are why the Devils are in the Eastern Conference Finals. After what rookie Braden Holtby did to the Rangers offense in the second round, I see the Rangers’ biggest asset as something of a wash. Both goalies will play very well, even if Henrik Lundqvist in his prime has an advantage over the aging Brodeur.
Goaltending: New York Rangers
The New York Rangers, after complaining through the entirety of the Devils’ dynasty about boring hockey and the dreaded trap, have ironically taken to blocking shots and grinding out their wins with goaltending. Rangers hockey is just about as boring as it gets in the new NHL. Their defense-first strategy allowed a relatively weak offense to get by most of the first two rounds before players like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik finally stepped up this postseason. However, those players have certainly stepped up. In the regular season the Rangers scored the fewest goals of any playoff-bound team that didn’t play in the Southeast Division, but if Richards and Gaborik stay hot that might not matter anymore.
The Devils opened up the ice against the Flyers, allowing their skaters to outwork and outscore Philadelphia. Ilya Bryzgalov played a surprisingly consistent series, but the Devils were relentless and little else mattered. When comparing offensive weapons, the Devils have an advantage in this series. No player on the ice is as dynamic as Ilya Kovalchuk (when healthy) and New Jersey had three 30-goal scorers and five scorers with 20+ goals in the regular season. The Rangers were led by Marian Gaborik’s 41 goals, but have only two other 20-goal scorers. This affords the Devils with a scoring depth that the Rangers lacked all season.
This postseason, the Devils and Rangers are remarkably similar in production numbers. Gaborik and Richards have combined for 21 points while Kovy and Parise have totaled 20. Travis Zajac has also contributed 10 points. Both teams have nine players with five or more points in the postseason, suggests a comparable depth. However, the Rangers have played fourteen games this postseason, so their numbers should be a bit better, shouldn’t they?
Offense: New Jersey Devils
If you asked me to pick out the weakest link in the New Jersey Devils’ top-six defensemen, I probably couldn’t do it. It used to be Mark Fayne, but over the course of the season he’s developed into one of the more consistent players on the Devils. Then it was Adam Larsson before he got benched, but he’s been great since returning to the lineup in the playoffs. Marek Zidlicky has been a force and Bryce Salvador is playing well. Andy Greene is in the middle of a huge rebound season, so I guess the weakest link in the Devils’ defense is Anton Volchenkov, but with the Rangers’ limited scoring depth it will be a difficult matchup for New York to exploit.
The Rangers defense is characterized by their system and their goaltender. I have nothing but respect for Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto, but there are some weaknesses in the Rangers blue line that the system covers. When the system fails and the defense fails, Henrik Lundqvist covers them. Ultimately, this is a very tight defensive corps, but it’s top-heavy. Marc Staal is shaky, as evidenced by his minus rating in the regular season, and the Washington Capitals exploited him at times.
Which is better: six average defensemen or a couple great ones?
If the players in the defense are of the same caliber, the Rangers’ system, as reminiscent of the Devils as it is, gives them an edge. Coach Tortorella’s system finally produced more wins than injuries en route to the top seed in the conference. Torts will surely make the adjustments necessary to quell some of New Jersey’s firepower and energy. He knows who his players are and how to use them, and when all else fails you can rely on Henrik Lundqvist.
The Devils’ coaching has been a weakness all season, but in the most important moments of the season Peter DeBoer finally came through. He coached the Devils to a win in the second round by changing his lines, exploiting skating matchups, and dominating the Flyers with an intense forecheck and solid strategy. DeBoer has always said all the right things, but he’s finally coaching with confidence and it shows.
The edge here has to go to Torts and the Rangers’ new version of old Devils hockey, but the new version of Devils hockey is why the old version of Devils hockey doesn’t work in the new NHL – well that, and rule changes getting rid of the trap.
Coaching: New York Rangers
No edge seems particularly striking in this series. The Devils’ recent changes, from the fourth line to a high-pressure forecheck, have them playing with confidence while the Rangers continue to ride the shot-blocking, frustrating system of defense that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Devils defense has few holes while the Rangers have one of the best shut-down pairings in hockey, though they lack some depth. The Devils have an offensive advantage in depth and production, but the Rangers are being carried by their stars right now and the right players are heating up to carry them in a series. The difference for me is the fatigue that the Rangers will likely suffer from. A hot Devils forecheck playing with energy and persistence can break down the Rangers in the same way they did the Flyers. New York has to be tired after fourteen games and a brutal, overtime-intensive, tight series with the Caps. Henrik Lundqvist is the great equalizer, but Martin Brodeur has been nearly just as good this postseason since being pulled in the first round. It’s going to be a tight series and a display of the Atlantic Division’s power when these two rivals square off.
My Prediction: Devils in Six
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