By Stu Hackel
Will the Devils be able to build on their 4-1 Game 4 win when they visit Madison Square Garden tonight for Game 5 or will the Rangers frustrate, if not disrupt, New Jersey's territorial dominance and find the offensive gear that was absent on Monday in Newark? Those are the main questions facing these two teams in what is now a best-of-three and the only series left before the Stanley Cup Final begins one week from today.
Of course, after Game 4, all anyone wanted to talk about was this:
NBC's Pierre McGuire, who had the best view and hearing of the verbal exchange between Rangers coach John Tortorella and Devils coach Pete DeBoer, declined on his various radio interviews Tuesday to divulge the specifics of what was said between the two. He told Montreal's TSN 990 "Melnick In The Afternoon" program (audio) that he was contacted by a number of media outlets to describe the exchange and he refused. As he said there and earlier on Ottawa radio Team 1200's "Three Guys in the Morning" show (audio), he takes it as a privilege to be between the benches and didn't want to jeopardize that.
But McGuire did admit during his Ottawa hit that the exchange was not about Michael Rupp's unprovoked punch of Martin Brodeur, perhaps more about Stu Bickel, who has little offensive talent, being on the ice with the Rangers trailing 3-0. Bickel rather predictably re-engaged with the Devils' Ryan Carter after Rupp's punch. There was also a lot of what McGuire called "trash talking" between two coaches who don't like each other. "It's juicy, and basically it has to do with how both...coaches were raised as coaches and their pedigrees in hockey," McGuire said. "It became personal and I just think I should leave it between those two guys." On Montreal radio, he said the two didn't threaten each other.
Well, if it's hockey pedigrees they discussed, neither rose beyond the low minor pro leagues as a player, one is an American whose coaching resume begins in the low minors, the other is a Canadian who came up through juniors. If that's the basis of their trash talk, neither is on much higher moral ground than the other.
That exchange is just a reflection of what this series has grown into -- a sucker punch here, a little spear there, here a check, there a check, everywhere a check check. But, as confrontational as these teams and their coaches may be, the chances of the sort of nonsense above continuing on Wednesday night are pretty small. There's too much at stake with the winner of Game 5 just one victory away from meeting the Kings to play for the Cup. And, in the unlikely event that the Rangers do believe they can get the Devils off their game by antagonizing them physically, that would probably be a miscalculation. New Jersey showed its discipline in its series against the Flyers and knows how to keep its cool.
The Devils, most would agree, have dominated the series and it has been the excellent play of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist that has created the 2-2 tie. McGuire described the Devs' approach to manufacturing offense as "get it down low, ground, pound, get it back to the point and then jam the net." That's just how they scored their game-opening goal on Monday.
Lundqvist may be great, but no goalie was going to be able to pick up that shot through all that traffic. The team that has scored first has won all four games so far and that's something worth watching for tonight.
New Jersey looked especially strong in this game and questions have to be raised about whether the Blueshirts' tank is starting to empty after playing two consecutive seven-game series before this round (not to mention the game against the Capitals that went into a third overtime) while the Devils got some rest after needing only five games to dispatch the Flyers in the second round. Tortorella also uses his depth players somewhat more sparingly than DeBoer and the minutes of his top guys pile up.
The Rangers have just not generated nearly as much offense in these four games as the Devils and the stats bear that out: New Jersey has taken 238 shots (including goals, saves, missed nets and blocks) and New York has taken only 177. In some games, the gap has been quite wide as the Rangers attempted only 32 in Game 3 compared to the Devils' 65 -- and that was a game New York won (or, more correctly, Lundqvist stole). Tortorella's club hasn't gotten any goals from his first line of Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Carl Hagelin, and none from second-liner Derek Stepan. When they are able to get shots on goal, Martin Brodeur has been there to get in the way.
Asked on Tuesday what he could do to get his top forwards going, Torts responded, "Pray. I don't know what else to tell you. We're going to keep on trying to play, pray, and hopefully something good happens to them."
But watching what transpired a bit closer during Game 4 revealed that the Devils unsung defensive tandem of Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador did a terrific job in a shutdown role, not letting the Rangers' top line get anything started. They read the play well, often blunting the Rangers' chances in the neutral zone by breaking up passes or taking the body before New York could mount an attack. On home ice with the last change, Tortorella will be more able to avoid having his top line out against that pair and that might help New York get more from its best players.
It's more than the Devils' top pair against the Rangers' top line, however. The Devils bump their opponent at every opportunity -- not just on the forecheck, which is one of their trademarks this season and what allows them to keep the Blueshirts pinned in their zone for long stretches, but also the neutral zone and in their own zone. It's good, solid playoff hockey and enough of it can weaken an opponent. If you're looking for a reason why the Rangers uncharacteristically turned over the puck at key times in Game 4, you might consider the physical duress they've absorbed. DeBoer is counting on it having an effect and the longer the series goes, the more pounding his guys will inflict on New York.
At the same time, unlike his buddy behind New York's bench, DeBoer has seen his top forwards raise the level of their play in this round. Everyone raved about how well captain Zach Parise played in Game 4, and with good reason: two goals and an assist. But others have come through as well and, as we pointed out in our preview of Game 4, DeBoer juggling his lines, putting Parise on one and Ilya Kovalchuk on another, presents a real problem for Tortorella. Who does he play his top shutdown pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi against?
McDonagh, the marvelous young Rangers defenseman, didn't do his side any favors when he fought with Adam Henrique early in the game. It got him off the ice for five minutes and that led directly to the Devils scoring their second goal, less than four minutes after their first. McDonagh would have been on the ice instead of Michael Del Zotto, who made a bad decision at the blueline that allowed Travis Zajac to put the Devils out of reach relatively early in the contest.
The Rangers will get Brandon Prust back for Game 5 from his one-game suspension and he'll resume his valuable role on the penalty kill and help disrupt the Devils forecheck, an important part of how New York can resuscitate itself. The Rangers just haven't had the puck enough through the first four games and if that trend continues, it doesn't bode well for them in this round.
There is also speculation from those who were at the Rangers' morning skate that Brandon Dubinsky might dress for his first game since the end of the first round. That could help New York generate some offense.
So, minus some of the more outward manifestations of their mutual ill will, these two unfriendly neighbors will go at it again. The Devils will almost certainly stick with what has worked for them so far. The Rangers hope to dig deep for some needed energy, revive their offense, maybe score first and ride the home crowd to victory this night on Broadway.
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