Rangers vs. Devils Eastern Conference Finals previewMay 14, 2012, by
Another series for the Rangers ends in seven games and another series begins with just one day of rest in between. This time around, the six seeded Devils stand between the Rangers and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Devils are here after beating third seeded Florida in seven games in the first round and fifth seeded Philadelphia in five games in the second round. From the get go, there are comparisons to 1994, but we don’t see it. Sure, it’s easy to say certain things are the same, but only Martin Brodeur remains from that series.
Surprisingly enough, the Devils are the team that outscored the Rangers (albeit by two goals) during the regular season. The Devils, like the Capitals before them, are a more skilled team up front than the Rangers. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrick Elias, Travis Zajac, and Adam Henrique form a very potent set of five forwards that will be difficult to contain.
The Rangers are hoping to get more from Carl Hagelin, who had a great Game Seven against the Caps, in order to really counter the Devils’ attack. Brad Richards has been on fire this postseason and Marian Gaborik isn’t exactly struggling to generate chances. If Hagelin can help get that duo going, and the Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Ryan Callahan line can generate some offense, then the Rangers might be able to match the offensive output.
While the Devils may have an advantage on offense, the defensive side of the game is all Rangers. The Rangers allowed 22 fewer goals than the Devils during the regular season and have not allowed more than three goals the entire post season (14 games). That is a NHL record. Where the Rangers have a solid top four in Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Michael Del Zotto, the Devils defense has multiple question marks outside of Anton Volchenkov. Marek Zidlicky has been a solid pickup for them, but on paper they don’t match up.
The battle of the best that has ever played the game versus the current best in the world. Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist are the past and the present in terms of elite NHL netminders. That said, Brodeur is having a great postseason for the Devils. Lundqvist has just been much better, as expected. The real question about this matchup is whether or not Brodeur will be able to match Lundqvist in this series. For the 40 year old netminder, it may not be as easy as matching up against Jose Theodore and Ilya Bryzgalov.
Interestingly enough, the Rangers and Devils both employ an umbrella powerplay strategy and both teams have scored an equal amount of powerplay goals this postseason (9), though the Devils have done it with fewer opportunities. Still, with that much skill up front you would think that the Devils would have the advantage, but we’ve seen that skill does not always correlate to goals with the man advantage. The Rangers powerplay has been inconsistent, but they have been good at moving the puck around to generate scoring chances.
The difference maker here is Gaborik. With no powerplay goals (three assists), he needs to start burying his chances. If he can start putting pucks in the net, then this series takes on a whole new look.
This is where Brandon Dubinsky would be a huge factor for the Rangers. His absence hurts, but the Rangers have the big advantage on defense and goaltending, which comes into play for the kill. The top Rangers defenders together with Hank, have made the penalty kill a lethal part of the Rangers defensive ability.
The depth of forwards that are capable of playing on the kill also favors the Rangers, who have about four separate lines of forwards who can kill penalties. However, the Caps were able to get a bunch of goals on the powerplay, so if the Devils can execute (see above), then it may not work out so well for the Rangers.
Suit’s Take: Deboer’s System
The Devils are no longer the defensive juggernaut they were under Jacques Lemaire, who had them playing a passive 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck. The goal for that Devils team was to contain the opposition in the middle of the ice, force a turnover and then counter attack. Peter Deboer still keeps a 1-2-2 in his arsenal (which was displayed in the Florida series), but for the most part this team has flipped the script and they are now on the aggressive.
As we saw in the series against Philadelphia, the Devils are mainly using an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck and playing below the dots. Peter is also pinching their defensemen to hold the zone and allowing their more mobile blueliners to join the rush.
From a systems standpoint, 5-on-5 Devils hockey is very similar to how the Rangers want to play their game. What will be interesting to watch is what the Devils do if they have a lead. Will they abandon their forecheck and just sit back and contain? Or will they maintain their pursuit of the puck? It’s hard to know, as they’ve shown both looks at various times throughout the regular season and the playoffs.
Back to Dave…
There’s always going to be a lot of noise when the Rangers play the Devils. But in the end, the biggest intangible that will have an effect on this series is fatigue. The Rangers have played the maximum 14 games thus far with an additional seven overtime periods. The Devils have played 12 games with five overtime periods. In addition, they have had five days off before the start of this round.
Rangers in six.