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When this 2008 Stanley Cup playoff season began, the New York Rangers had completed a very up and down regular season. Yours truly had condemned them for being one of the most inconsistent teams I had seen in recent memory. A strong finish got them the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. That wasn’t determined until the final day when a 3-2 shootout loss on April 6th assured the New Jersey Devils they would have home ice advantage as the fourth seed in the opening round against the Rangers.
But home ice advantage in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series proved to be anything but that. As we take a look back at the five games played between the Atlantic Division archrivals where their home arenas are separated by just 9½ miles and the Hudson River in between, the games were close, but in the end, it was clearly the Rangers who found a way to win their fourth series in five they’ve ever played against the Devils.
APRIL 9, 2008
GAME 1 – Rangers 4, Devils 1
Much of the hype surrounding this series predictably centered around the marquee matchup between Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, but this night belonged to ex-Devils forward Scott Gomez. He had played his previous seven playoff seasons and won two Stanley Cup titles with the men in red and black, but his playoff debut in a Rangers uniform was a rousing success.
Both teams felt each other out in the first half of the first ever playoff game played at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The sellout crowd mixed with Devils fans and Rangers fans saw their teams trade scoring chances, but few had a real chance at finding the back of the net. The Devils’ best chance in a scoreless first period came when Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin had turned the puck over and Sergei Brylin skated down the right wing side of the side and clanged a shot off the crossbar behind Lundqvist. A second one came with just two minutes left in the period as Devils forward Brian Gionta pickpocketed the puck from Gomez above the left circle in his own zone and shot a point blank shot just wide of the net.
Gomez made his first serious impact on Game 1 as the Devils’ third power play of the night had expired. After carrying the puck into the Devils zone against three defenders, he passed the puck off to Brendan Shanahan entering the right circle. Somehow, Shanahan’s shot got past Brodeur and the Rangers scored the first goal of the series for a 1-0 lead 1:45 into the second period. That would be Gomez’s first playoff point.
But Gomez would later commit a hooking penalty and it proved costly at the time. Just over a minute into the ensuing power play, Devils defenseman Paul Martin tied the game at 1-1 with a nice wrist shot from the right circle with 6:46 left in the second period. Rangers defenseman Daniel Girardi had gotten lucky seconds earlier for not getting called for cross checking Devils forward Zach Parise to the ice during a wild scramble for the loose puck near the left doorstep, but it wouldn’t matter as Martin’s equalizer would later send both teams to their respective locker rooms in a scoreboard deadlock through 40 minutes of play.
What might have set the tone for the remainder of this game and perhaps given the Rangers the boost of confidence they needed was a highlight reel save by Lundqvist against Devils forward Patrik Elias. This scoring chance developed thanks to Bryce Salvador sending the puck toward the net from the left point. During a battle for the loose puck, it found Elias parked at the right doorstep and he fired a hard shot off the lightning-quick left pad of Lundqvist. Then what was the turning point of the game, Gomez headed up ice with the puck during another Devils power play. He would dish it off to Ryan Callahan on his right wing side and then tie up two Devils players in the low slot as Callahan fired a bad angle shot at Brodeur. The puck would slide past the top of the crease and Callahan surprised the slow reacting Brodeur by circling behind the net and beating him to the left doorstep to chip it home for a shorthanded goal. New York took the lead for good at 2-1 with 12:37 left in the second period. Point #2 on the night for Gomez as he picked up his second assist.
The Rangers put the game away with 2:53 left in the game as Gomez gain possession of the puck in the neutral zone off a New Jersey turnover and headed toward the left doorstep with three Devils players collapsing on him. But he was able to find Sean Avery skating into the low slot and with Brodeur out of position, Avery buried an easy shot into the wide open net to make it 3-1. Third point and assist of the game for Gomez. Nigel Dawes completed the scoring with an empty netter with 4.5 seconds remaining. How is that for your first NHL playoff point as a rookie? It will forever be etched into that kid’s memory.
This was a statement game for Lundqvist as he made 26 saves for his first playoff game win against the Devils. But he knew the games that lied ahead would not be a walk in the park for him as he expressed to Jim Cerny of newyorkrangers.com after the game.
“We know we are facing a really good team, but we really believe in each other and the way we are playing," Lundqvist said. “This was a good win. But it's only one win. We have a long way to go here.”
APRIL 11, 2008
GAME 2 – Rangers 2, Devils 1
With the series opener tucked away in the Rangers’ pocket, their confidence to win a playoff game in enemy territory such as in New Jersey had risen. Given this was at a new arena and not their house of horrors at the nearby Meadowlands Sports Complex, the Broadway Blueshirts had no playoff demons to slay other than the 2008 Devils.
Lundqvist and Brodeur battled during a scoreless first period with each team recording nine shots on net. However, Lundqvist was more tested with the Devils getting more of the quality scoring opportunities. Nearly halfway through the period, he made three quick pad saves as New Jersey swarmed the net with Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner and Martin all being denied in a sequence of shots.
The Rangers would have to rely on stellar penalty killing in the second period to keep the game scoreless. Thirty minutes in penalties were handed out between the two teams, including unsportsmanlike conduct infractions during two separate incidents such as between ex-teammates Gomez and Langenbrunner and later Shanahan and David Clarkson exchanging unpleasantries. But the key penalty kill for New York was during a 5-on-3 New Jersey power play after Rangers defenseman Christian Backman was sent to the sin bin for four minutes with a high-sticking penalty (he crosschecked Parise in the mouth that saw him lose a tooth or two and chipped another) and Callahan for a roughing call as result of mixing it up with Devils forward Dainius Zubrus. The Rangers would also have to kill off another penalty that overlapped into the third period thanks to Avery getting into Brodeur’s kitchen and being served a goaltender interference penalty.
Even though Brodeur denied Backman with a sensational glove save just over four minutes into the third period, New York had gained the momentum from their penalty kills. They would finally break the scoreless deadlock just seconds later by quickly striking for two goals in a span of just 23 seconds. Brandon Dubinsky won a key faceoff in the Devils zone and Michal Rozsival sent the puck into the right corner to immediately apply pressure on New Jersey. Jaromir Jagr beat Devils defenseman Colin White to the puck, circled behind the net and then turned around in the low left faceoff circle to fire a quick shot on net. The puck somehow found a seam between the left post and Brodeur’s back to score the first goal of Game 2 at the 4:26 mark. The Devils can blame White for accidentally bumping Brodeur as Jagr moved into position to shoot.
"It was tough to find room out there. So when I finally had a little bit of room, I tried to turn around and shoot it on net because you never know what could happen," Jagr explained to Cerny after the game. "I didn't really care how it looked as long as it went in."
Another key offensive zone faceoff win this time by Scott Gomez led to the Rangers’ second goal. Gomez sent the puck back to Girardi at the right point who fired a shot toward the net, but it was blocked along the way. Avery was in the right place at the right time as he found the carom between the faceoff circles and fired a rising shot past Brodeur’s glove into the upper right side of the net. Just like that, it was 2-0 New York with 15:11 remaining in the third period.
Lundqvist lost his shutout bid with just 1:23 left in the game and the Devils having pulled Brodeur from his net for the extra skater. John Madden won an offensive zone faceoff and then positioned himself at the right hash marks to redirect a slap shot from Elias atop the right circle into the net behind Lundqvist. Suddenly it was a 2-1 hockey game. But Lundqvist was able to ward off the Devils’ repeated attempts to tie the game and secure the victory. Stopping 26 of 27 shots in Game 2 enabled the Rangers to grab a 2-0 series lead. He admitted he had to earn that win for every second he was out on the ice.
"For me as a goalie, it was just so intense those last few minutes," Lundqvist said. "You just have to stay strong even though you are really tired.”
APRIL 13, 2008
GAME 3 – Devils 4, Rangers 3
Following the Rangers fans’ pregame festivities that included a double decker bus ride through New York City’s Midtown Manhattan streets, it was time for their team to get to work.
Unlike the first two games of this series, the two goaltenders were unable to maintain the very low scoring trend. The Devils were able to catch their first true break of the series. While in his own zone, Blair Betts had the puck stolen from him by Devils forward Mike Rupp which would lead to a scoring chance. Rupp immediately sent a shot toward Lundqvist that was sent aside with his blocker. Devils forward Aaron Asham was stopped on his follow-up attempt from the bottom of the left faceoff circle by Lundqvist’s left pad, but Brylin was able to pounce on the loose second rebound above the crease and slip it into the net. After a video review where there was a concern Brylin kicked the puck in a forward motion with his skate and turned out to be deflected in off of Betts’ stick, the Devils earned their first lead so far in the series just 3:01 into Game 3.
New York would apply tremendous pressure to get the equalizer with 7:43 remaining in the first period. After Rangers defenseman Paul Mara had a long shot from the left point clang off the left post behind Brodeur, Dubinsky would retrieve the rebound along the near boards and leave it for Martin Straka in the corner. Straka found Jagr behind the net who would dish the puck off to Dubinsky cutting to the low right faceoff circle. Somewhat similar to what Jagr did in Game 2, Dubinsky would quickly turn and fire a shot on net. It would beat Brodeur inside the left point for his first NHL playoff goal to make it 1-1. No doubt Brodeur would’ve loved to have that goal back. The score remained the same at the first intermission with the two teams to start the second period skating 4-on-4 thanks to Avery earning his second goaltender interference penalty of the series and Parise serving a cross checking infraction.
Avery, the kind of player that you would love to hate if he’s on the opposite team while at this point Rangers fans love considering he plays for theirs, would cause a controversy that is still talked about by the media and fans to this day. It has died down since this occurred, but it may spark a rule change in the future. What am I talking about, you ask?
With Salvador and fellow Devils defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski sent to the penalty box just ten seconds apart, the Rangers had a 5-on-3 power play advantage 5½ minutes into the second period. Avery decided to take his agitating game play on Brodeur to a new level by basically ignoring the action around him and besides setting a screen to block his view of the puck, he waved his stick continuously in Brodeur’s face. It appeared to work to Avery’s advantage as he later took a centering pass in the low slot from Gomez and scoring his third goal of the series for a 2-1 Rangers lead 1:10 after Salvador’s penalty was called.
While the Devils basically kept quiet on the issue, many of the talk shows such as NHL Live! on XM Radio and print media discussed Avery’s tactics at length to point where the league issued a statement the next day to address it.
"An unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty will be interpreted and applied, effective immediately, to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender's face, for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play," NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said in a statement.
It would later be known as "The Sean Avery Rule". While it isn’t in the rule book, Avery or any other player that attempts to use that tactic again will likely be penalized for obstruction, goaltender interference or unsportsmanlike conduct.
The Rangers then lost some of their discipline and brains past the midway point of the second period. After Callahan and Mara each got two-minute roughing penalties and then Tyutin suffered a brain cramp for closing his hand on the puck as he intercepted a Devils’ lead pass from entering the Rangers zone, New Jersey would cash in on the ensuing power play. Elias finally solved Lundqvist with his first goal of the series with 7:04 left in the period from above the right hash mark. Then with Rozsival in the penalty box for a high sticking infraction, the Devils got another break on the resulting goal here in Game 3. Parise scored his first of the series as his weak shot from the right circle deflected off Shanahan in front and bounced off a fallen Lundqvist in the crease and over the goal line. Two straight power play goals for New Jersey and they regained the lead at 3-2 with 4:41 remaining before the second intermission.
New York would answer back within the first minute of the third period. While battling Salvador in the low slot, he was able find a loose rebound off a Jagr shot from the right circle and score the game-tying goal at the :55 mark. They nearly took the lead roughly a minute later as Brodeur made an incredible stop on Callahan from point blank range while lying on his back in the crease. Game 3 would later go to overtime, the first time in this series any game needed more than 60 minutes to settle the outcome.
The Devils would dominate play in the overtime period as they outshot the Rangers by a margin of 6-1. Lundqvist dodged a bullet as Gionta had sped down the left wing side nearly two minutes into extra play and clanged his snapper of a shot off the right post. But New Jersey’s lone Game 2 goal scorer would get the Devils back in the series by winning a left circle faceoff in the Rangers zone against Dubinsky, then getting to the loose puck to the left of the net and intentionally sending a bad angle shot off Rangers defenseman Marc Staal’s right skate above the crease and past Lundqvist for the winning goal. New York’s series lead was cut in half to 2-1. Lundqvist took in stride after the game.
"They got really good breaks on their third and fourth goals tonight, but that happens," Lundqvist told Cerny in a postgame interview. "If you work hard, you make your own breaks. Tonight was their night."
APRIL 16, 2008
GAME 4 – Rangers 5, Devils 3
The more offensive trend carried over into Game 4 at Madison Square Garden and the Devils with momentum in hand were poised to even the series.
As they did at times in the first three games, the Rangers found a way to pin the Devils in their own zone with good possession and forechecking. With Madden in the penalty box for a holding penalty, Girardi made a sensational lead pass from the right point to a wide open Gomez heading to the left doorstep for a nice tap in for the power play goal 12:37 into the game. It was the kind of play which proves why these players are of professional calibre and very few around the world can match. It would stand up as the lone goal of the first period.
It appeared the Rangers had failed to bring their collective heads with them from the locker room as the Devils struck back quickly in the opening minute of the second period. Lundqvist was able to fend off a Parise slap shot from above the left circle with his blocker and stop Langenbrunner on the point blank rebound, but Elias beat two defenders to the loose second rebound below the right circle and fire a follow-up shot past the Rangers netminder to tie the game at 1-1 just 31 seconds in.
But the Devils would give the game right back nearly 2½ minutes later as the Rangers capitalized a 2-on-1 rush into the New Jersey zone. Dubinsky skated down the right wing side and slid a perfect cross ice feed to Straka heading into the left circle who in turn snapped a quick one-timer past Brodeur for a 2-1 lead at the 2:53 mark. In years past, opportunities like this was so rare against the Devils, you can tell these weren’t the defensive clamp down team we were accustomed to seeing.
New York would have another penalty come back to bite them with a too many men on the ice infraction and Elias would score his fourth goal of the series and the second straight game he notched two. Johnny Oduya camped out inside the blueline found Elias in the left circle who proceeded to fire a wrister past Lundqvist to tie the game again, this time at 2-2 with 13:02 remaining in the second period. However, the Rangers made up for their mistake as Tyutin prevented Parise from successfully clearing the puck out of the zone and had Chris Drury redirect his long shot from the left point past Brodeur for a 3-2 lead with 7:21 remaining before the second intermission. This was as back and forth between the teams trading goals as I’ve seen all season long.
With the Rangers scrambling in their own zone, the Devils were able to tie the game up for the third time in Game 4. Madden found the puck in the left corner and tried to make a centering pass, but it slid through traffic in the low slot and defenseman Mike Mottau would retrieve it along the opposite side boards. Mottau, a former Rangers draft pick, made a nice move around two Rangers defenders and wristed a shot over Lundqvist’s left shoulder and into the net to make it 3-3 4:37 into the third period. Madden had another big chance to put the Devils ahead again as he took a lead pass from Gionta and split the Rangers defense to get another shot on Lundqvist. But he’d be denied with roughly 11½ minutes to go in the period.
Even though Avery blew a chance at the go-ahead goal with 4½ minutes ago as he had a wide open net by shooting the puck into a fallen Brodeur in the crease, Staal would get redemption for the bad luck he had in Madden shooting the Game 3 winner off his skate. Jagr had generated the initial scoring chance with a long slap shot as he skated into the left circle completely wide open. Even though Brodeur made the save, Jagr didn’t give up on the play. He dug the puck free from a scramble for the rebound near the right hash mark and got it to an open Straka inside the blueline. Straka then found Staal joining the play as he skated into the zone toward the left point. Staal would fire a long slapper that somehow beat Brodeur for what would be the winning goal with 3:13 left in the game, the first of his inaugural NHL postseason. Gomez would later add his second goal of the night to put the game away as his center ice faceoff win against Madden was sent down the ice into the empty Devils net with 12.2 seconds to go. But the story was Staal winning Game 4 for the Rangers and you knew he was relieved.
"It's incredible. I hadn't scored a goal at home during the entire season this year, so to get one in the playoffs, and from the timing that I got it, it's pretty amazing,” Staal said. “It's a great feeling."
Rangers head coach Tom Renney paid compliment to his star rookie defenseman for putting Game 3 behind him and ultimately making the difference in Game 4 and giving New York a commanding 3-1 series lead.
"The big thing with Marc is that he is so good at parking whatever goes on in his game, good and bad, and you know he's all ready for the next one. Good for him."
APRIL 18, 2008
GAME 5 – Rangers 5, Devils 3
As expected, the Devils would be playing with a sense of urgency. They got off to a good start with nine shots on net and Gionta scoring the game’s first goal just 4:40 into play. The team that scores first would normally win, right? New Jersey would draw first blood in Game 4 and Game 5, but failed to win when all was said and done. They should’ve had some momentum to do what the accomplished in Game 3 and that’s again get back in the series.
Just 18 seconds later, Jagr beat White to the puck as the headed to the backboards of the Devils zone just as he did in Game 2. While they were battling for possession of the puck to the left of the net for the puck, Salvador inadvertently swiped the puck away from Jagr toward the slot. Rozsival swooped toward the right hash mark and fired a wrister past Brodeur to quickly answer back and tie the game at 1-1 at the 4:58 mark. Momentum was quickly snatched out of the hands of the Devils.
Elias had then committed a slashing penalty to put the Rangers on the power play and it would prove to be costly. With the Devils basically clogging the slot area in front of the net, Jagr had ample time in which to make a play. With no one coming over to challenge him along the perimeter, the Rangers captain simply skated deeper into the right circle for a closer look at the net and ripped a shot past Brodeur for a 2-1 lead just 1:40 after Rozsival’s goal.
Gomez would follow up his two-goal Game 4 performance with a clutch goal in the late stages of the opening period. Avery would get sent into the backboards by Madden, but that didn’t stop him from trying to make a play. Shanahan made a nice play to outmuscle Oduya in the right corner for the puck and got it to Avery behind the net. Just as was the case with Jagr earlier, Avery wouldn’t draw a defender in his direction. So, he made the wraparound try that failed, but amongst heavy traffic, Gomez was able to find the loose puck and snap the rebound home for a 3-1 advantage with 1:59 to go before the first intermission.
When Nigel Dawes made a great centering feed from the left corner to a wide open Drury along in the right circle and Drury scored on the play for a 4-1 New York lead 5:35 into the second period, most observers would think New Jersey was toast, right? Not quite. With Dubinsky half asleep as he skated toward the net with his back toward the neutral zone, he likely assumed Salvador was just going to dump the puck in. Bad move. Salvador saw the opportunity to shoot from center ice toward Lundqvist and the rising shot deflected off Dubinsky’s shoulder and skipped into the Rangers net. Sure, a little help of a pinball bounce off the left post and Lundqvist right shoulder would do the trick. Momentum swing back on New Jersey’s side as the Rangers’ lead was cut to 4-2 with 10:34 left in the period.
About three minutes later, suddenly the Rangers lost their discipline as Dubinsky and Staal took penalties just 29 seconds apart to put the Devils on a 5-on-3 power play. New Jersey would collapse down low to pressure Lundqvist into making some saves here. After Parise had taken a Langenbrunner feed at the right doorstep and get denied by Lundqvist. A rebound bounced to Elias in the low slot and his weak follow attempt carom off the Rangers goaltender and over the goal line. Before you could count the Devils out, they were within one at 4-3 with 6:10 remaining prior to the second intermission.
What defined the Rangers’ series victory over the Devils was Lundqvist ability to come up with the clutch save at crunchtime. Madden was pulled down to the ice by Girardi on a brief breakaway to set up a penalty shot. Game on the ice as Madden bid for the equalizer. But Lundqvist waited him out and make the save on Madden’s backhand attempt.
"I had no doubt in my mind he was going to stop it," Renney said of Lundqvist’s penalty shot save on Madden.
The Rangers were able to seal the series as they warded off New Jersey’s repeated attempts to tie the game and Dubinsky scored an empty netter with 59.1 seconds left to make it 5-3 and that was all she wrote and the Rangers took the series in five games.
AFTER THE SERIES...
One of the obvious post-series storylines would be if Brodeur and Avery shake hands during the traditional series-ending handshake the two teams would do. Brodeur blew Avery off and that came as no surprise. When someone like Avery publicly blasts you to the press, pulled the kind of tactics in Game 3 that to many felt was over the line and was completely in your face for five games, I doubt I’d be inclined to shake Avery’s hand either.
Despite the Rangers finishing a dominating 11-2 against the Devils this 2007-2008 season, the majority of the games were very close. Lundqvist outdueled Brodeur in a matchup of future Hall of Famer vs. a rising star in the league, Gomez recorded 7 points against his former team in this series while Jagr had a team-leading eight points in the five games. But the great play from their rookies in especially Dubinsky and Staal along with solid efforts from Callahan, Shanahan and Drury really propelled New York to victory.
ON TO PITTSBURGH...
That leads us to their upcoming Eastern Conference Semifinal series that begins tonight in Pittsburgh against a Penguins team that swept the defending Stanley Cup finalist Ottawa Senators out in four straight. While the Penguins have not played in nine days, they’re well rested, but so are the Rangers after a week to prepare. Pittsburgh will be a significantly tougher opponent and having won 10 straight home games, New York’s got a tough challenge ahead.
The Rangers won 5 of the 8 meetings during the regular season, but went just 1-3 at Mellon Arena. If they are come up with their first playoff series victory in four lifetime tries against the Penguins, they’ll need to do the following:
- win at least one of the first two games in Pittsburgh starting with tonight’s Game 1
- contain Pittsburgh two top scorers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin while paying attention to Marian Hossa
- Lundqvist will need to elevate his game to a new level as the goals he allowed in Game 3 and Game 4 will likely result in losses against the Penguins
- Tom Renney will need to keep his defensemen to as short of shifts as possible to keep them fresh in covering Crosby, Malkin and other speedy Penguin players
- must be much better disciplined and stay away from penalties as Pittsburgh will burn you on power plays
- Avery cannot expect to have an easy time agitating the opposition as the Penguins can counterattack that with Jarko Ruutu and even Georges Laraque
- continued production from the Rangers top forwards such as Jagr, Gomez, Drury, Shanahan, Straka and Dubinsky
- getting offensive support and penalty killing from their role players and defenseman during special team situations, players such as Staal and Girardi will especially need to step it up in this series
Should the Rangers win at least one of the first two games, they can win this series in six games. They should be prepared for an even longer and harder-fought battle than the previous series against New Jersey. However, should they fail to accomplish all those keys to winning the series as I mentioned, they’ll fall short and lose. One thing is for certain, both will be playing with hunger in their eyes.