No division in hockey is tighter than the Metropolitan. Aside from the Penguins, who have distanced themselves from the pack, the other seven teams are separated by seven points. In short, any game played between teams in the division has major playoff implications, indoors or outside.
The Rangers season can be broken down into two phases: A really bad start, and then a regression back to form. New York opened the season with a nine-game road trip, which was followed by injuries to Ryan Callahan, Henrik Lundqvist, and Rick Nash. Under a new head coach in Alain Vigneault, the Rangers were adjusting to playing in a new system.
But since game eight, the Rangers have had the second best record in the East behind Pittsburgh, while the team has adapted to Vigneault's style. Lundqvist is playing more like himself, while backup Cam Talbot has been a pleasant surprise. After starting the season in the AHL, Chris Kreider has proven he's an NHL player, flourishing under Vigneault, and sparking Nash back to his old dominance. Vigneault has gotten more out of some of the Rangers depth guys like Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Benoit Pouliot. And Ryan McDonagh has continued to blossom into one of the best defenseman on the planet.
The biggest part of the Rangers turnaround has been its special teams. While the penalty kill is still good—a holdover from the John Tortorella era Rangers—the power play has been revived under new assistant coach Scott Arniel, and has been the sixth best in the league.
Age is only a number for the Devils, as four players 36-years-old or older have led the way for New Jersey this season. Martin Brodeur is at the top of that list, as the 41-year-old ageless wonder continues to see the majority of time in the crease for New Jersey. Right behind him has been Cory Schneider who the Devils acquired in a draft day trade with the Canucks. Schneider's numbers a have been a little better than Brodeur's, but, as always, the Devils play their game from the net out.
New Jersey's top line is led by another pair of old guys: Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias. Jagr, the newcomer to the team, is putting up his best numbers since he last left the NHL is 2008 to play overseas, and currently leads the Devils in scoring. Elias has missed 15 games this season, but has been effective when playing alongside Jagr.
The Devils have once again been a defense-first team, despite a few moves they made this offseason to bolster their attack. Players like Damien Brunner and Ryane Clowe who were brought in to provide depth up front have both missed significant time, and have never really found their strides. Instead, its been another senior player in Marek Zidlicky (36) who has contributed with good scoring numbers from the blue line, while playing over 20 minutes a night. The old Czech trio of Jagr, Elias, and Zidlicky will need some help though if the Devils are going to make a push into the East's top eight.
Five Questions to Answer
1. Is there any stopping Rick Nash?
There's plenty of theories as to Nash's revitalized play, ranging from a clean bill of health, to an endorsement from Hockey Canada, to his speedy linemate Chris Kreider. Here's what we do know: Nash has 10 goals in his last 10 games, including three multi-goal games. That stretch also includes four game winners, and coincides with the Rangers going 6-3-1. Since returning from an early season concussion, Nash has scored 17 goals in 32 games, an 82-game pace of 43.
2. Can Jaromir Jagr continue to shoulder the offensive load?
Jagr has said time and time again how much he loves to play hockey. He's also really old, and has a lot of mileage on his skates. While his production has been a welcome sight for the Devils, in no way was Jagr expected to be the centerpiece of the Devils offense. Some of the aforementioned guys like Clowe and Brunner (now healthy), and Adam Henrique need to find a way onto the score sheet more often.
3. Will Kevin Klein open the door for John Moore?
Kevin Klein isn't the kind of player who's going to blow anyone away, but the Rangers are hoping Klein can open the door for John Moore. When New York decided to ship Michael Del Zotto to Nashville, the move allowed Moore to go back to his natural left side. Moore and Del Zotto both also play a similar, offensive style of game, and Klein's stay-at-home attitude should mesh better with Moore, and allow him to take more risks up ice.
4. Can Joe Whitney find a home on the top line?
The offensively-starved Devils turned to the AHL and former standout collegiate Joe Whitney to shake things up. And Whitney was not only called up to simply take a roster spot, but is slotting in on the Devils' top line alongside Jagr and Travis Zajac.
5. Will Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur give us one more classic goalie duel?
Outdoor games generally lend themselves to lower-scoring affairs, but with Lundqvist and Brodeur in net, it's usually the case no matter the venue. If this is Brodeur's final season, he'll only have two more chances to play against his biggest rival in the Rangers—a team he's defeated 48 times in his career—with Sunday being one of those. Brodeur already beat Lundqvist earlier this season when the Rangers' goalie was still finding his game. Lundqvist owns the career head-to-head against his future Hall of Fame counterpart, posting a record of 24-9-5 in the duo's 38 matchups. If this is one of the last times the two goalies battle it out, what not a better setting than Yankee Stadium.
|2014 NHL Stadium Series :: New York|
2nd in Metropolitan Division
Rangers blog: Blueshirt Banter
Devils blog: In Lou We Trust
|Sunday, January 26, 2014 :: 12:30 p.m. ET / 9:30 a.m. PT|
|Yankee Stadium :: Bronx, New York, USA|
|Coverage of every Stadium Series game|