Keys to the Eastern Championship
By Stu Hackel
They're not good neighbors, as we saw a few times this season, but that can make for great hockey when the Devils and Rangers hook up. Yes, there will be echoes of 1994, when New York won the Eastern Conference championship in the second overtime period of Game 7, but that was long ago. With the exception of Marty Brodeur, who is still in goal for the Devs, almost everything and everyone has changed, including the way each team plays: The Rangers are now the more defensive oriented club and the Devils are the team that might be stronger offensively. But both play a strong all-around game and this series will be a treat.
Whether the open warfare from the regular season carries over is uncertain -- and we may find out right away in Game 1. The conventional wisdom is that this stuff doesn't do much for your team in the playoffs (and it's questionable how much it does in the regular season), but it's not wise to expect anything conventional when these rivals get together. Even if the bad blood doesn't bubble over the top, it will be there in every hit and every shift. Even the coaches have gotten into it this season. Most likely, the stuff that happens between the whistles and not after them will decide who moves on to play for the Stanley Cup.
NEW YORK RANGERS (1) vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS (6)
Rangers -- What they did right in the second round: -- Their series-clinching seventh game against the Capitals on Saturday might have been their most impressive of the 14 matches they've played so far. The Rangers took Washington's best players out of the game with excellent defense, especially on the backcheck and with strong backside pressure. And in the moments when they weakened, Henrik Lundqvist was there, making his case for why he's hockey's top goaltender. In the series as a whole, the Rangers' defense corps was strong and solid, with Marc Staal (who is playing better every game) joining Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto in a formidable top four that not only defended well but contributed mightily to the offense. The Rangers got 4 goals and 14 points from their blueliners in the last round. Their mobility as a group helped jumpstart New York's speed game. Along with all the other Blueshirts, they absorbed the pounding by the Caps' physical forwards, didn't allow it to disrupt their game, and emerged with no serious injuries.
In addition to the obvious contributions from their top forwards, the Rangers got strong two-way play from their depth guys like Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov. That allowed John Tortorella play them and not over-rely on his top forwards and, in turn, that allowed New York to push the pace of the game. Exceptional penalty killing (16 of 20) was another strong element of their series. And, as always, there is Tortorella: willful, demanding and unrelenting, to whom his players have responded.
What they have to improve: New York's power play went 4-for-25 against Washington, and that's not good enough. It would be helpful, especially on the road, for Tortorella to work harder at getting his best forwards away from the opposition's top defenders (in this round, that will be Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador), but he doesn't seem interested in deploying his players that way. Lundqvist's catching glove side was targeted by the Caps' shooters and exposed on long-range shots. Don't think the Devils didn't notice. Tortorella relied too much of his top four blueliners and runs the risk of burning them out. And it will be helpful for them advance from of this round in under seven games. Much has been made about the lack of success by playoff teams that go the limit in each of the first two rounds -- none have won the Cup. While the Rangers are not worn down by travel, they play a physical brand of hockey, making and taking big hits and blocking shots. And, with their coach whipping them, every game is like a Game 7 and most are one- or two-goal decisions. They have no easy nights -- they haven't had any all season. The duress can take its toll, and New York's first 14 playoff games could already feel like more. Or maybe this is just who the Rangers are and they can handle it.
What they'll have to do to win this round: The Rangers are a better team when they play with the lead, so scoring first and holding on to it will be crucial. The two most important elements for the Rangers may be faster puck movement to find shooting lanes while playing with the extra man and making quick first passes to break down the Devils' strong forecheck and cycle game. Getting secondary scoring from the likes of Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle would be greatly beneficial as well. And, of course, Lundqvist must continue his excellent play against a very strong offensive team.
Devils -- What they did right in the second round: Its best players have to be its best players for a team to have success in the postseason and, against the Flyers, the Devils' best players were just that. With exemplary discipline, they resisted Philadelphia's attempts to draw them into stupid penalties and get them off the ice and out of their flow. New Jersey's hard forechecking game and ability to cycle the puck kept the Flyers bottled in their own zone and unable to get into their rhythm. The Devils' penalty kill against the Flyers (15 of 20) was, at times, exceptional, rebounding from its poor performance in the first round against the Panthers. Credit some unsung heroes for their no-name defense -- Mark Fayne, Andy Greene and Salvador -- for excellent work when down a man. Salute great coaching by Larry Robinson for getting the Devs' d-men to grow as a unit. In fact, coaching is one of New Jersey's biggest strengths. Peter DeBoer shrewedly broke up his lines toward the end of the Flyers series, putting Patrik Elias with Zach Parise and David Clarkson on one line and Travis Zajac with Ilya Kovalchuk and Dainius Zubrus on another. That spread out the offense and put some size and physical presence on every line. Having a "hammer guy" on each helped keep the Flyers off-balance.
Goalie Martin Brodeur has steadily improved as the playoffs have gone on and his excellent puckhandling was a factor in not allowing the Flyers to get into their forecheck. It's a big advantage he has over Lundqvist (and if the Devils can put the puck in places where Lundqvist has to handle it and make a play, those could be important situations for them).
What they have to improve: As well as he's played, Brodeur still allows a few too many soft goals and must tighten up. Unlike the goalies New Jersey faced in earlier rounds, the one in this series has been making all the saves he should and a good number that he shouldn't have, so Marty will have to be on top of his game. They Devils will also want more consistent production from their power play (4-for-18 against Philly). A little more offensive production from their secondary scorers and defensemen would help augment their attack.
What they have to do to win this round: It may be unavoidable, but the layoff between rounds could hurt the Devils in Game 1 against the Rangers and they may have to fight off their rust. Brodeur's play must continue on its upward path, the penalty kill has to remain strong, and the Devils will want to get as much traffic as possible in front of Lundqvist. If they can score first, and build more than a one-goal lead, it could doom the Rangers who have averaged nearly one full goal per game less than New Jersey during the postseason so far. They'll have to match the Rangers' legitimate physical intensity (which wasn't an issue posed by the Flyers) without taking penalties. Because his players are so defensively responsible, DeBoer won't be afraid to put his best forwards out against the Rangers' best, but they'll have to work harder in establishing their forecheck and cycle than they did against the depleted Flyers. They'll also have to figure out a way to avoid Rangers shotblocking. Perhaps most important, Kovalchuk will have to continue to fight through whatever is ailing him (suspected to be a bad back). He played remarkably well for someone who is less than 100 percent, which shows his character, his talent and how key he is to the Devils' scheme of things.
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