Tuesday April 28th, 2009

In the battle of tonight's Game 7s, Capitals vs. Rangers will likely win purely on quality of entertainment: highlight reel goals (Ovie's triple deke), headshots, maybe a little dose of unseemly antics (e.g. bottle-squirting) and a whole lot of chirping (Shaone bit me!). But for the best pure hockey game, turn to Newark where the Devils and Hurricanes will decide who survives the most underrated series of the first round.

Through six games, these two teams have been evenly matched on every front. Everything from goals scored (Carolina 13; New Jersey 12) to shots taken per game (Carolina 34.5; New Jersey 34.7) and power play percentage (Carolina: 8.0; New Jersey: 8.7) stand about the same. So in an up and down series that hasn't had a clear favorite at any point, here's a look at the vital of areas of the decisive match:

• Goaltending. Obviously an important factor in a do-or-die game, but Cam Ward of the Hurricanes and the Devils' Martin Brodeur are huge reasons why this series has been so competitive and interesting. The two share similar numbers (Ward's 1.96 GAA and .942 save pct. to Brodeur's 2.13 and .938) and more importantly, have been making clutch and sometimes spectacular saves.

"I think the goaltending has been the talk of the series," said Devils coach Brent Sutter. Assuming that each bring his A-game tonight, we'll call it a wash.

Eric Staal. In Game 5, Carolina's big-bodied (6-4, 205) center moved from his usual line with Erik Cole and Tuomo Ruutu to skate with Ray Whitney and Chad LaRose, who are smaller, quicker wings. Staal was on the ice for each of the Hurricanes' four goals on Sunday and found some instant chemistry with Whitney, who had a hand in every score as Carolina forced Game 7. There's no reason for head coach Paul Maurice to mess with what works even if he doesn't have the last line change tonight. Look to how Devils coach Brent Sutter plays his matchups against this line, which could pose problems for New Jersey's checkers.

• Zach Parise. He hasn't scored since Game 3, and was limited to just 4:33 of ice time in the third period of Game 6 as his teammates turned the last 20 minutes into a shoving match. The 24-year-old winger will need to step up and fight for space in front of the net where he can do damage with deft deflections and take advantage of any rebounds Ward might surrender.

Power play. Neither team has seen much success with the man advantage in this series. The Devils are 2-for-23 while the Hurricanes are 2-for-25. The first six games have been fairly clean -- only the teams involved in first-round sweeps accrued fewer penalty minutes than New Jersey or Carolina, and only the Red Wings averaged fewer minutes in the box per game than the Devils or 'Canes. That said, Game 7s are desperate affairs and discipline will be crucial.

• Experience. The Devils seem to think they were built for this one. Brodeur starting the ninth Game 7 of his illustrious career (he's 5-3 with a 1.68 GAA and .928 save pct. in such situations), but Ward is 2-0 in do-or-die games and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2006. And Carolina's greybeard captain Rod Brind'Amour netted the Game 7-winner against Buffalo in the 2006 Eastern Conference Final. New Jersey will likely need to lean on veterans like Patrik Elias, who has scored six points in his six Game 7s, but as mentioned, young gun Parise is overdue and dangerous (45 goals, 94 points during the regular season).

No matter the ultimate hero on either side, a worthy team will be going home early for the summer.

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