The New York Rangers (51-24-7, 109 points) and New Jersey Devils (48-28-6, 102 points) meet in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1994, and this year's version has sort of a deja vu feel to it. In one of the more memorable series in playoff history, the Rangers needed a Stephane Matteau goal in overtime of Game 7 that year to defeat New Jersey. And by the way, that just so happens to be the last time New York won the Stanley Cup.
Just as they did 18 years ago, the Rangers finished the 2011-12 campaign in the top spot in the East. Meanwhile just a short train ride to the south, the Devils were one of four Atlantic Division clubs to finish the regular season with an excess of 100 points.
New York won the season series by a 3-2-1 count, and as always, there was a good deal of animosity between the rival teams. On March 19 at Madison Square Garden, it took just three seconds after the opening faceoff for a line brawl to break out.
There is no love lost between these two teams and with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final at stake, you have to believe there will be no punches pulled by either Rangers' head coach John Tortorella or NJ bench boss Peter DeBoer.
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
New York required a Game 7 in each of its first two series, knocking off the Ottawa Senators in the first round and the Washington Capitals in the Conference Semifinal. The ability to pull those contests out just goes to prove the importance of home ice advantage, one of the definite edges gained by such a fantastic regular season.
New Jersey needed two overtimes in Game 7 of their opening round triumph over the Florida Panthers, then breezed through what many thought would be a much more difficult opponent in the Philadelphia Flyers in just five games.
These teams were pretty comparable offensively during the course of the season, with just two goals separating the clubs (Rangers over Devils, 228-226).
After notching four goals against Ottawa in their initial postseason game, the Rangers have been unable to tally four in a single game since. They scored 14 goals in the seven contests against the Sens, then managed 15 in seven games versus Washington. As a matter of fact, the New York has netted two goals or less in 10 of its last 13 playoff outings.
The Devils' offensive output in the postseason has gotten stronger as the postseason has moved ahead, scoring 18 in seven games against Florida, then potting another 18 in the five-game set against Philly. New Jersey has been held below three goals just twice in their 12 playoff games.
The big guns thus far in the second season have not come as a surprise -- New York's big offseason free agent acquisition, Brad Richards, the 2004 Conn Smyth Trophy winner in the Tampa Bay Lightning's Cup triumph, leads the Blue Shirts with six goals and 11 points, while Marian Gaborik has four goals and 10 points. Derek Stepan (1-7-8), Ryan Callahan (3-3-6) and Artem Anisimov (2-4-6) round out the biggest threats among Rangers forwards, while NY blue liners have chipped in with eight goals of their own.
Ilya Kovalchuk heads New Jersey's list of contributors with five goals and 12 points -- which includes two goals and seven points in only four games in round two -- with Travis Zajac's five goals and 10 points right behind. Zach Parise (4-4-8), David Clarkson (2-6-8), Dainius Zubrus (3-4-7), rookie Adam Henrique (2-5-7), and Patrik Elias (3-2-5) provide the Devs with perhaps the most potent group of scorers in their history. The Devils' forecheck proved to be an absolute nightmare for Philadelphia in round two, heavily turning around an opponent's strong suit to use as a weapon in their own favor.
One of the biggest strengths for New York throughout the regular season and playoffs has been the ability to defend the net. With a blue line that includes Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman, the Devils will find it much more difficult to get pucks through to the net than they did against the Flyers.
While the Devils' blue line corps is not comparable to those of NJ Cup-winning teams of the past, the unit of Anton Volchenkov, Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, Mark Fayne, Andy Greene, and rookie Adam Larsson has been better than solid through two rounds.
During the regular season, New Jersey had slightly better numbers on its special teams units -- 17.2 percent as opposed to New York's 15.7 percent, and an NHL-best 89.6 percent on the penalty kill as compared to the Rangers' 86.2 percent.
Both clubs have tallied nine power play goals through two rounds, with New Jersey having the better of the two PP's -- 20.5 percent vs. NY's 15.8 percent.
The Rangers' penalty-killiers (82.6 percent) have done a better job in the postseason than that of New Jersey (73.9 percent), even though the Devils recovered from a near-disastrous first round performance against the Panthers in shutting down what had been a lethal Flyers' man advantage unit in round two. NJ has also notched one shorthanded goal.
Both teams have excellent last lines of defense between their respective pipes.
New Jersey has Martin Brodeur, the legend that will end up as the leader in just about every important goaltending category once he decides to finally hang 'em up. It's hard to believe, but the three-time Cup winner was in the Devils' crease in that 1994 series between the clubs. So far in the postseason, Brodeur is 8-3, with a 2.05 goals-against average, a .920 save percentage and one shutout.
The netminder still possesses superior puck-handling skills, assisting on three NJ goals through two rounds. Even though his numbers are excellent, Marty did look beatable on the rare moment when the Flyers were able to penetrate the New Jersey defense and generate an offensive chance.
While Brodeur is one of the all-time greats at the position, Henrik Lundqvist is quite simply one of the top two or three goalies in the world right now. Having been named a finalist for the Ted Lindsay, Vezina and Hart Memorial Trophies for his remarkable regular season, "King Henrik" has picked up in the postseason right where he left off at season's end. Mentioned above is the Rangers playoff offensive struggles, but they've been able to achieve success because of Lundqvist -- 8-6, 1.68 GAA, .937 save percentage and one shutout.
Regular season head-to-head -- Brodeur 3-3, 1.98 GAA and Lundqvist 3-2-0, 1.40 GAA.
THE RANGERS WILL WIN IF:
... Lundqvist continues to be rock-solid in the Rangers' net. He can steal a series almost on his own, and is there to erase mistakes on the odd time there is a miscue in front of him. New York has relied on its suffocating defensive game to grind out victories for months, and that game plan continues to yield victories. Tortorella's squad will play defense first and attempt to make the most of counter-strikes along the way, and this is where players such as Richards, Gaborik, Callahan, Stepan and even role guys like Brian Boyle will be most valuable. A large part of any NY success in this series will be in the amount of rubber they can get through to Brodeur, and the quality those chances can produce.
THE DEVILS WILL WIN IF:
... the furious New Jersey forecheck can pin the Rangers deep in their own zone for long stretches, the way they did against the Flyers. If the Devils' cycle game is going strong and the puck is nearly 200 feet away from their own cage, sometimes that can be the team's best defense. Brodeur did look shaky at times against Philadelphia, but he has made the stops he needed to throughout the postseason. Included in his better performances were two consecutive clutch overtime victories to close out Florida with the possibility of potential elimination looming. If New Jersey can dominate territorial play and get traffic in front of Lundqvist, this could well end up being a very long series.