On the Highway to Hell

Outlook on Devils-Rangers Series

BY CHAYIM TAUBER

With the Eastern Conference title on the line for the first time since 1994 between these two teams, the physicality of the Rangers/Devils series should be akin to a twelve car pile-up. This series should be a nasty one, and for those who don’t like violence, there’s always America’s Got Talent. For those that do however, strap yourselves in.

Of the many storylines scattered throughout this series, none may be more appealing than the age-old battle between the old lion and the new.

The main concern for the Devils heading into their series’ against the Panthers and Flyers was how their geriatric but still effective 40-year-old goaltender could turn back the clock for what could be his last postseason run. Martin Brodeur was inconsistent in the Panthers series, having some awful games and having some vintage Marty games, and though he wasn’t the awe inspiring goaltender of years past, it was enough to propel his team through a double overtime game 7 and into the second round of the postseason.

In the second round they met the ultra-physical and offensively gifted Flyers. Once again, he wasn’t at his best but he was certainly able to outperform the NHL’ s newest “Mr. Enigma” Ilya Bryzgalov, the primary reason why the Devils won that series and did it so handily. Now, Brodeur is in the same position he was in 18 years ago as a rookie netminder for the Devils; Eastern Conference Finals against the Rangers. Problem for the Devils is that there’s no Bryzgalov in goal to help them out.

Instead, the Devils have to score on the man that Brodeur referred to as “kind of the best goalie in the league right now;” Vezina favorite Henrik Lundqvist. And Lundqvist has been brilliant. He’s beaten two hot goaltenders in Craig Andersen and Braden Holtby and stymied the Devils in Game 1, robbing Zach Parise on the doorpost on three consecutive point-blank shots to preserve a one goal lead.

Of course, as Brodeur was quick to snidely point out, those were some of the few shots Lundqvist had to defend as his teammates were vigilant in their shot blocking responsibilities. Lundqvist made some remarkable saves (most notably the ones on Parise and robbing Danius Zubrus on a Dan Girardi giveaway right in front of the net) in his 21 save shutout performance but the Rangers bested him, blocking 26 shots and stifling the Devils offense by their willingness to get in the way and take a puck.

Ryan McDonagh was the real defensive star, hustling back to break up two breakaways in the second period by both Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise respectively to keep the game knotted at zero while the Rangers found their legs.

The Devils were well rested heading into this game and it showed as they dominated the first two periods. Their forechecking pressure gave the Rangers fits in their own zone and led to some incredibly sloppy and potentially destructive play in their own end of the ice. If not for the efforts of Lundqvist and McDonagh, the Rangers would have headed into the third period down at least one goal if not more; a hole perhaps too deep for a Ranger team that had just played a Game 7 to come back from.

Tortorella insisted that fatigue played and would play no factor in his team’s game in this series though the evidence implies the opposite. The Rangers were certainly the slower team in the first couple of periods as the Devils pushed the pace and did pretty much as they pleased with the Rangers (short of scoring, of course).

It wasn’t until the third period and Dan Girardi’s one-timed slap shot past Brodeur that the Rangers had some jump in their legs. It was also pointed out to coach Tortorella that no team that’s won two Game 7’s in one postseason has won a Stanley Cup; a stat that he labeled “total crap.”

Game 1 was the game the Rangers were supposed to drop to the well-rested Devils. The Rangers have now won every Game1 they’ve played this postseason. It’s the 2-0 series lead that‘s twice eluded them.

The Rangers have three things going for them in this series. They have the impregnable Lundqvist in goal; a last line of defense that every team envies. They also block shots better than anyone. Though shot blocking has taken its fair share of heat this offseason (thanks to the Rangers), it’s their greatest ally in giving Hank a lift. Their last weapon is the speed and youth they have on offense.

Carl Hagelin has been a whirling dervish of activity in his last couple of postseason games, wreaking havoc with his forechecking and offensive rushes. Add rookie-phenom Chris Kreider and his speed and the Rangers suddenly have a quick couple of lines to contend with. As good as the Devils are, speed is not their game.

The Devils have scoring punch throughout their lines; Stephen Gionta, Danius Zubrus, and Travis Zajac all joined Kovalchuk and Parise as top performers in the Devils opening rounds and every line from their first to fourth has been impactful. Of course for the first time this postseason, they are going up against a team with a goaltender that’s even better than their Hall of Famer, a team that’s as physical as they are, and a team that enjoys getting dirty along the boards as well.

The Rangers have made it clear that they are not built for a short series and that’s all well and good because the Devils are a dream matchup. These games won’t be for the fan that needs a goal-a-minute type of game. If that’s you, change the channel. But for fans of nasty, gritty, glove dropping, vicious checking, play-through-injuries, no excuse, fast-paced, emotional, and desperate hockey with a healthy dose of dislike thrown in, this is your series.

Unfortunately for Devils fans, the real Devils fans who shudder every time they hear the name Stephane Matteau, this’ll be déjà vu all over again. Rangers in 6.