Eastern Conference Final preview: Rangers (1) vs. Devils (6)
John Tortorella's Blueshirts got here the same way they eked out their Eastern Conference regular-season title: by contesting every single loose puck. They grind-and-cycle. They dump-and-chase. They forecheck-and-backcheck. They block shots and play every minute of a game as if by the Mayan calendar, seemingly afraid that the end is near. And they are probably right to feel that way. While they have genuine offensive star talent in Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan and Marian Gaborik, these playoffs have shown that they Rangers would be sitting at home right now if not for their mucker-and-grinder teammates, guys like Mike Rupp, Stu Bickel, Brandon Prust, Derek Stepan and Brian Boyle. New York has scored an average of just 2.07 goals per game in 14 postseason contests, but they've allowed only 1.86, and that's good enough for a shot at a Cup final berth.
The Devils have the shinier offensive roster: Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, Petr Sykora -- good scorers all. But the reason why New Jersey is still playing, too, is because their skill guys have bought in to the forechecking, defense-first philosophy of coach Peter DeBoer. They outworked a star-studded Flyers forward group in the last round, creating numerous turnovers by getting in deep on the forecheck.
It will be a fascinating storyline, therefore, to see which team works hardest in the other's zone during this series. The Devils won't find it easy to get the puck in deep against a Rangers team that prides itself on keeping it in the other two-thirds of the ice. New York's Henrik Lundqvist (8-6, 1.68 GAA, .940 save pct.) has shown no letup after his Vezina-worthy regular season. His career record against the Devils isn't bad, either: 25-11-5, 1.79, .936. Meanwhile, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur -- the only player left from the rosters of the teams that met in the epic 1994 Eastern finals -- has been enjoying a renaissance period in which he's stopped 92-percent of the shots he's faced in the playoffs, with a 2.05 GAA.
One big statistical difference between the teams so far: the Rangers have blocked 267 shots to New Jersey's 131 -- albeit in two more games-played. With the Rangers, it's all about sacrifice. The knock against the Devils entering the playoffs was that their forwards wouldn't adapt to a tighter-checking postseason game, but that hasn't turned out to be accurate ... so far. Because the differences between the teams are so few, expect a long series. Travel fatigue shouldn't be an issue.
Devils in six.