By Stu Hackel
It's Game 4 in Newark tonight and a big one. A Rangers win over the Devils would give them a 3-1 lead in the series and a chance to close it out at home in Game 5. New Jersey, which always won the big games it had to against the Panthers and Flyers earlier this spring, looks to even the series at 2-2 and make it a minimum six-game affair. And to add some fuel to this combustible rivalry, the physical nature of the series has heated up and the coaches are getting into it.
The flashpoint came in Saturday's Game 3 when Brandon Prust, who is a valuable member of the Rangers, threw his elbow into the back of Anton Volchenkov's head. There was no call by the refs on the play (nor on his little calling card elbow against Devils goalie Martin Brodeur later in the contest), but that didn't stop Brendan Shanahan from suspending Prust for Game 4, even though Volchenkov wasn't hurt.
Devils coach Pete DeBoer called it "headhunting, plain and simple" after the game. On Sunday, the Rangers -- and especially coach John Tortorella, who considers Prust one of his most reliable physical players -- defended the Blueshirts' winger in the expected fashion (video), attesting to his character and highlighting the fact that he had no prior offenses that required NHL discipline. Tortorella, surprisingly expansive in his remarks compared to some of his recent one-word ripostes, then implied that the Devils were staying down on the ice after being hit in order to draw penalties, something he said his team is instructed not to do. He pointed to other incidents in which the Devils had gone after Ranger heads -- a Dainius Zubrus high hit on Anton Stralman that might have been an elbow to the head (video), and another by Zach Parise on Michael Del Zotto (video, not the greatest view), and complained that New Jersey was getting away with interference by setting picks to obstruct New York players who try to get into shooting and passing lanes to stymie the Devils' offense.
Asked to comment on that, the usually expansive DeBoer went all Tortorella and replied "Comical." He let that sink in and then asked for next question (video).
So the pot is bubbling pretty high heading into Game 4.
Trying to sort through all these niceties, one inescapable fact is, however, that Prust did extend his elbow into Volchenkov's head. He may not be a cheap shot artist, just an honest but rugged player -- most people around hockey think of him that way -- but what he did was, at minimum, reckless. He deserves his ban and it's going to have an impact on the Rangers in Game 4 (more on that below). Shanahan seems to have established something of a supplementary discipline standard for the postseason after a pretty dubious start: A flagrant hit to the head or an egregious boarding infraction that he reviews can earn the perpetrator a one-game suspension, even if no penalty was called on the play and there's no injury to the victim. Something that injures an opponent can get more. The fact that he's willing to sit players out at all, regardless of whether a significant injury occurs is an advance in his thinking and over that of his predecessor, Colin Campbell.
Another inescapable fact is that the deliberate targeting of the head by both clubs has gotten pretty flagrant. Why some are called and others not -- in this case, none -- who knows? The apparent inconsistencies (at least to these eyes) in officiating and supplemental discipline are nothing new in either regular or postseason hockey, but that doesn't make them any less puzzling or vexing. It will be worth watching how the zebras handle this in Game 4; if Tortorella raised it to the media, you can be certain the Rangers brass had already brought it to the attention of the league's series supervisor.
A third inescapable fact is that the Devils, who said prior to the series that they had a plan to combat the Rangers shotblocking, have incorporated some subtle interference in that effort. Aaron Ward showed examples and spoke about it on this NHL on TSN panel segment Sunday, saying, "There's no secret the New Jersey Devils are employing a strategy to pick 'em so it can free up a guy like Ilya Kovalchuk on the power play so he has time and space to let go of the bomb."
Ward also branded the Patrik Elias pick on Dan Girardi that preceded Kovalchuk's power play goal in Game 2 "not even subtle. He's walking Girardi out to the slot, gets his stick in there, gets his body in there and Girardi has no opportunity" to block Kovalchuk's shot. Kovy had lots of time and space to get in and score on Henrik Lundqvist. You can see Ward's point pretty well on the replay angles shown here:
You can bet that the Rangers have raised this issue with the league as well. If the Devils continue to use that tactic, whether penalties are called will tell if the Hockey Operations Department thinks this sort of thing actually is interference or just battling for position in front.
Those are just some of the subplots to watch for in Game 4. Prust is an important member of the Rangers' penalty kill and a solid checking forward. With him missing, New York would ideally like to return Brandon Dubinsky to the lineup, but he's been out with a foot injury, missing the entire Washington series, and has just started skating again. It's quite possible he's not yet ready to return and that would force Tortorella to dress either Stu Bickel or Steve Eminger, both defensemen, in Prust's spot. He wouldn't divulge his plans on Monday morning, but neither Bickel nor Eminger would be able to adequately replace what Prust brings to the game.
The Devils, meanwhile, will shake up their lines in an effort to break though offensively, having twice been shut out this series. It looks like DeBoer will split up Kovalchuk and Parise, having Elias and Adam Henrique play with Kovalchuk, and putting Parise with Zubrus and Travis Zajac. That will force Tortorella to decide which of those lines will draw his best defenders: Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. It also looks like DeBoer will insert speedy center Jacob Josefson, who broke his wrist in early April, onto the third line and scratch veteran Petr Sykora. The hope is Josefson will add some energy and fresh legs.
There are some bigger themes, of course, like whether the Devils can do a better job on the power play, which has only that lone Kovalchuk goal above to show for 12 opportunities in this series.
The Devs have dominated the games territorially, but due to New York's great shotblocking and goaltending, they have only three goals and one victory. Lundqvist has been superb and DeBoer admitted on Saturday it's "a little frustrating" to face a goalie who is performing at such a high level. "We're not the first team Lundqvist has done this to," he said, adding the Devils just "gotta stick with it."
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