They dropped both games in the Sunshine State with a 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on March 14th and then a very lackluster 3-0 shutout loss to the worst team in the entire league the next night in the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was basically a reality check in which their play in January and February cost them dearly as far as playoff positioning was concerned. About a week later, the Rangers had lost back-to-back games against the Philadelphia Flyers. To close out the regular season, New York had clinched their third straight playoff berth last Thursday with a 3-0 victory on Long Island as Henrik Lundqvist earned an NHL-best 10th shutout win. But a 4-3 shootout loss to the New York Islanders the next night spoiled the Rangers’ final regular season home game and then lost a chance to nail down the home ice advantage as the #4 seed in the East with a 3-2 shootout loss in New Jersey, the only time in eight meetings the Rangers had lost to the Devils.
And with that loss, the Rangers will have to open the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs on the road tonight, just 9½ miles west-southwest of Madison Square Garden, as Newark was where they just played three days ago. For the fifth time in the history of this heated Hudson River rivalry, the Rangers will face the Devils in the playoffs.
New York took the first three playoff series meetings, all in the 1990s with Mike Richter, Brian Leetch and Mark Messier as the Rangers’ star performers. Their seven-game 1992 series set the tone for this rivalry. The absolutely epic 1994 Eastern Conference Finals battle with Stephane Matteau’s memorable double overtime winner in Game 7 took it to a whole new level. Adam Graves’ wraparound goal past Martin Brodeur in 1997 was the last time the Rangers defeated the Devils in the playoffs. Back then, they even had Wayne Gretzky in Broadway Blue. But just two years ago, New Jersey delivered a decisive four-game sweep over the Rangers with the clincher taking place in the heart of midtown Manhattan.
It is my pleasure to have invited three fellow ArmchairGM members that will be keeping an eye on this series to offer me their insight and even predict which team they believe will come out on top.
First up is MetsJetsDevils, who provides his keys to victory for each team plus a prediction on the series outcome.
This is going to be the lowest scoring series in the entire playoffs as it matches up two teams who are offensively challenged, defensively gifted, and have poor power plays. The Rangers have the more spectacular names with Gomez, Jagr and Drury. Nonetheless, the team has not clicked offensively and it might be Dawes and Callahan that are the key to the series.
DEVILS KEYS TO VICTORIES
1) Score First - Both the Devils and the Rangers have trouble scoring goals. This figures to be a very low scoring series. The Devils are not built to come from behind, and their defense is not as sure as it was a few years ago. This team will play much better with a lead. 2 goal leads will be especially deadly in this series.
2) Neutralize Avery - It may sound weird to say that stopping Sean Avery is a key to the series. The guy is a half talented punk with little actual skill. Nonetheless, he brings energy to the Rangers and is a constant pest. If I am the Devils, I line Clarkson or Asham up against Avery on his first shift and just pummel him to try to send an early message. If you can get Avery running around he will hurt his team. His own GM said as much during arbitration.
3) Get Production From Role Players - If I am the Rangers (as you will see below), my simple mantra is not to let Zach Parise beat me. The reality is that Parise is the Devils offense as Elias and Gionta have not had strong offensive seasons. For the Devils to win, they are going to have to get goals from guys like Dainius Zubrus and John Madden. Travis Zajac where are you?
RANGERS KEYS TO VICTORY
1) Challenge the Devils Defense - The most impressive players during the regular season Devils/Rangers games were Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan. These guys have to play under control, but challenge the Devils defense with their speed and tight checking. The Rangers can get this Devils' defense running around and out of position. Gomez and Jagr ca't and won't do it all. Each of the Rangers lines need to have an aggressive forecheck and force the Devils defense to work hard.
2) Finish Chances - One thing always remains the same for the Devils, and that is Marty Brodeur. He has been stellar at the end of the season. He will be even better in the playoffs. The Rangers need to pepper him from shots from all angles as he has been known to give up goals from strange angles. Most important though is not to miss opportunities. Put the shots on net and take advantage of odd-man rushes.
3) Don't Let the Studs Beat You - Past Devils Teams have been 4 lines deep with no players worthy of shadowing. This Devils' team simple does not scare you offensively. Zach Parise is the Devils' biggest threat. No one else, not even Brian Gionta or Patrick Elias have scored regularly. If the Rangers keep Parise off the board, they have an excellent chance to take the series. If Parise is scoring and setting up his teammates, the Rangers have no one to blame but themselves.
I am a Devils fan, but I have less confidence on this Devils' team then in any team in recent memory. John Madden and Jay Pandolfo aren't playing a defensive role anymore, but are playing on the second line and expected to score with Brian Gionta. Travis Zajac is an afterthought and is struggling in his second season. The blueline produces little offense and is prone to defensive breakdowns. Nonetheless, if this team can score 2 or 3 goals a game, they are going to win the series.
The Rangers can expect Jagr and Gomez to be highly focused on. Thus, if they are going to win they need to get goals from guys like Callahan, Dawes, Shanahan and Drury. Like the Devils, the Rangers defense is questionable but the goaltending spectacular. The Rangers won all the close games against the Devils this year and will be looking for revenge for the Devils' 4 game sweep 2 years ago.
No matter who wins this series, it will almost all be one goal games. The Breaks have to even out for the Devils eventually. Neither of these teams are going to win the Stanley Cup.
Devils in 7.
TheSportsApple, a gentleman who blogs about New York sports and much more, provides his overview and prediction of the series.
For the second time in three seasons, the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils will match up in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. It wasn’t a pretty series for the Rangers in 2006 as they were swept by the Devils in four games. Henrik Lundqvist was relatively ineffective in the series, seeming tired after a great rookie season and awestruck in front of Martin Brodeur.
Times are different now. That Rangers team that took on the Devils did not have much of a lineup and were picked to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference. It was virtually a Cinderella team for the entirety of the season as they unexpectadly made the playoffs. The Rangers team that is taking on the Devils now is deep in talent, boasting several Stanley Cup Champions and clutch players, such as Brendan Shanahan, Chris Drury, and former Devil Scott Gomez. They have also owned the Devils throughout the season, going 7-0-1 against a younger, less deep Devils team. However, with this in mind, Martin Brodeur is still a top-3 goalie in the NHL, and when he is in the net, anything is possible.
Offensively, the Rangers have a decisive advantage. Even though goals have been hard to come by for the team, (they rank 25th in the NHL) they have countless options that can put the puck in the net. Drury, Jagr, Gomez, and Shanahan all have natural goal scoring abilities. Ranger fans also hope that Captain Clutch (Chris Drury) can use some of that playoff magic that ousted them in Buffalo in these playoffs to carry them to their first Stanley Cup since 1994. The Rangers are also a youthful team with players that treat each shift like their last. Brandon Dubinsky has made a name for himself playing along side Jagr, and will do whatever it takes to help the team win. He is reminiscent of a young Adam Graves, a player who will clean up in front of the net, fight, check, and do all of the little things. Nigel Dawes has turned into quite the sniper and shootout whiz, and Ryan Callahan is quick on his feet, and could turn into a phenomenal two-way player who finishes his checks and constantly beats opponents to the puck in the offensive zone. The Devils sport a sniper in Zach Parise, who seems to kill the Rangers every time they play. Parise had 8 game winning goals, tied with Patrick Elias for team lead. Elias, who has often seemed to be in Brent Sutter's doghouse has done nothing against the Rangers in the season series. He will be important though because the Devils ranked 27th in goals scored this season. The Devils also sport two fantastic two way players in Jay Pandolfo and John Madden, who can score, and who play lights out defense. Madden will be key for the Devils as he will be matched up against former teammate Scott Gomez, Madden had 42 points in the regular season, but if he can neutralize Gomez, then New York will be in big trouble.
The power play will be important for each club. Neither team possesses a particularly potent power play as the Rangers ranked 21st and the Devils 24th. However, the Rangers power play has come to life going 7-for-18 over their final 5 games after going 1-for-30 in their 9 previous games.
The Sean Avery factor will be key. Everyone remembers how he tormented the Thrashers last Spring in the Rangers 4-1 series victory over Atlanta, and then disappeared against the Buffalo Sabres. If Avery can keep his head on straight, and utilize the offensive skills that he possesses as a compliment to his agitating skills, then the Rangers will in good shape. This becomes key in Madison Square Garden when the crowd loves to rally behind Avery as he takes the opponents stars out of the game, mentally and physically.
Defensively, the teams are about equal. Need side has a true star on defense, but are comprised of several formidable anchors who fall into specific roles. Players such as Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are young, but seem like seasoned veterans in their play. Michael Rosival has been the Rangers' best blue line option since he joined them in 2006, and Christian Backman has been a tremendous asset since coming over from St. Louis at the trading deadline. The Devils have a great offensive defenseman in Paul Martin, and several youthful players such as Johnny Oduya, Andy Greene, and Mike Mottau who play into coach Brent Sutter’s defensive schemes.
It's Martin Brodeur versus Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Brodeur is a seasoned net minder who has won three Stanley Cups with the Devils throughout his illustrious 13-year career. He has a career 1.93 Goals Against Average and 94 career postseason wins. Lundqvist, on the other hand, has more playoff losses than wins (7 losses to 6 wins) and a 2.58 career GAA. What Lundqvist has going for him is he has been absolutely sensational over the past few weeks, stopping 190 of 203 shots (.936 SV%) over the past eight games while posting a 5-2-1 record. King Henrik also led the NHL in shutouts this season with 10.
I feel that the Rangers finally are a superior team against the Devils in a postseason in what feels like forever. However, Brodeur may just channel his inner Patrick Roy, stand on his head, and make incredible save after incredible save. Brodeur may in fact carry the Devils game after game, however the Rangers win this series 4-3 taking game 7 at the Prudential Center in front of 17,625 stunned Devils fans.
And Kelsdad, a man who has seen the ups and downs of the Yankees and Rangers over the years, offers his view of what lies ahead for potentially the next seven games between these two teams.
The Rangers went 7-1 vs. the Devils this season, outscoring their rivals 20-9. Although their loss in the final game of the season cost the Blueshirts home ice in the series, the Rangers match up so well against New Jersey it shouldn't matter either way.
The two biggest weaknesses of the Devils play into the Rangers two biggest strengths. First, New York had eleven players score double digit goals. While the lack of a bonafide 40 goal scorer would have hurt another team, the Rangers actually benefitted. Allowing the coaching staff to mix and match lines without regard to who plays well with who gave them a marked advantage over the opposition.
The Rangers attacking offense, carrying the puck in as deep as possible instead of the traditional dump and chase, gave them fewer overall shot opportunities, but those they had were of higher quality. The Devils defense corps is among the biggest in the league, and while they trap well, in tight spaces their lack of mobility allows the Ranger forwards an extra second to grab control of the puck and get a shot off. In the same light, Martin Brodeur is among the best goaltenders in the league and excels on longer shot attempts. Pinching inside reduces shot attempts but increases scoring opportunities.
Rangers in five.
What do I think of this series and how it will play out?
To be honest, while the Rangers have the decidedly upper hand in this series in regards to offensive firepower, defense ultimately wins championships. Brodeur has proven time and time again that he is the biggest factor in how this series will go. How, you ask?
First of all, the Devils are going to count on him more than they ever did in the past. That might be the sign of a weaker team in front of him. However, he is one of the very best goaltenders in NHL history and before his career is done, he will set league records in a number of categories. Brodeur has shown no signs yet of father time catching up to him as he’s a month shy of his 36th birthday. He’s owned the Rangers with a 39-23-15 career record and just two years ago helped New Jersey earn their first-ever playoff series victory against them in four tries. He will be frequently tested and at times will have to stand on his head if the Devils are to prevail.
On the other side, Lundqvist has been more than up to the task in matching the Devils netminder in every game they’ve gone head-to-head. In order for Brodeur to have avoided a season sweep at the hands of the Rangers, he had to survive another shootout on Sunday. Lundqvist played in all of the Rangers’ eight games against New Jersey this season with beyond insane numbers… a 7-1 record, just 9 goals allowed on 205 shots, two shutouts, a 1.09 goals-against-average and a .956 save percentage.
MetsJetsDevils, TheSportsApple and Kelsdad all covered the key players in this series, but I must point out that in addition to Brodeur, Patrik Elias will be under the most pressure to produce. He’s been under a microscope all season and whether or not he is able to handle the leadership role as the Devils captain. He’ll obviously need to step up in the playoffs. On the other side, the same can be said for Jaromir Jagr. He may have come on as of late, but he’ll need to be the Jagr of old (before his shoulder injury in Game 1 of the previous playoff series meeting).
Scott Gomez will undoubtedly be on the hot seat just like his ex-teammate Elias will. As MetsJetsDevils brought up, Sean Avery will be a factor without a doubt and how will New Jersey plays against him will go a long way in their prospects of winning. The Rangers are a different team when he's not making an impact such as getting under the skin of the opposition and making plays in the offensive end of the ice. Can he throw off Brodeur's game? How about any others wearing those red and black uniforms? Time will tell.
In what will be the best marquee matchup of goaltenders where the veteran with the Cup rings and multiple individual awards on his resume goes up against a rising superstar, if Lundqvist outduels Brodeur in a low-scoring drawn out defensive battle, the Rangers will win the series. I expect it to still be closely contested throughout and if either team wins any game by more than two goals, it will come as a shock. I expect the Rangers to win in six games.
Local newspapers in the New York City metropolitan area still have the New York Mets and New York Yankees hogging the headlines, but with this first round matchup, the Rangers and Devils could steal a back page or two if any epic chapter is written. MSG Network will provide plenty of local television coverage from the games themselves, their pregame and postgame interviews and press conferences while Versus and TSN will give out-of-town fans a chance to follow the action.
It’s time for Lundqvist-Brodeur II. It begins tonight at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Stay tuned. This could get pretty interesting around here during the next two weeks.