First-round breakdown: Rangers vs. Devils
OK, so when did Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, Jason Arnott, Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson sneak back into the New Jersey swamp? Like a B-grade horror movie, the Devils are like the team of zombies that can't be put down.
Left for dead when Robinson walked away from the bench earlier this season, the Devils have mounted a comeback of monumental proportions that concluded emphatically Tuesday night when they erased a three-goal deficit against Montreal to slide in the back door and claim the Atlantic Division crown and home-ice advantage. Are they that good? Well, they enter the playoffs with an 11-game winning streak and the only starting netminder in the conference with a true playoff pedigree (with apologies to Philadelphia's Robert Esche).
Across the river in Manhattan, the question facing the Rangers as they prepare for their first playoff game since the spring of 1997 is whether this is enough. The Rangers were universally picked to finish at or near the bottom of the conference. But behind a strong work ethic, wonderful goaltending from rookie Henrik Lundqvist and a startling season from MVP candidate Jaromir Jagr, the Rangers look to be built not only to make the playoffs but also to make some noise.
Still, the Broadway boys dropped five straight games to close the regular season, a swoon that cost them home ice and called into question their readiness for prime-time hockey. The loss of home ice could be significant, even though the proximity between the teams suggests "home" is a relative thing.
Both teams rely heavily on one offensive line and a cast of role players to fill the gaps and not make too many mistakes otherwise. They both rely on netminders who don't mind a lot of work and are immune to pressure. The big difference is that one (Martin Brodeur) is headed for the Hall of Fame as soon as he decides he's got enough hardware, and the other is still wet behind the ears.
Why the Rangers will win: A scout who was discussing the playoff situation with ESPN.com called back a day later to say he'd forgotten to talk about how impressed he was by the Rangers and their work ethic. He's right. In general, the Rangers are among the hardest-working teams in the NHL. They have proudly maintained that they have the best third and fourth lines in the league. That must be proved in this series, where the bit players' contributions will be crucial. That means rookie Petr Prucha, Petr Sykora, who's been there before both as a Devil and a Mighty Duck, and Jason Ward will have to pick up the pace.
In spite of the Devils' red-hot status, both the Rangers' power-play and penalty-killing units are more efficient. That must continue if the Rangers hope to upset their neighbors.
And then there's Lundqvist. The man they call King Henrik sat out a handful of games to rest a hip injury, and he looked rusty as the Senators beat him five times on 32 shots Tuesday. The stats suggest Lundqvist vs. Brodeur is a huge mismatch. But as long as Lundqvist doesn't get it in his head that he has to beat Brodeur all by himself, he can make the difference in what promises to be an interesting, emotional series. Given his play this season and at the Olympics, where he won a gold medal, it appears Lundqvist gets it. If that's the case, the door is open for the Rangers to make good on the promise this season suggests.
Why the Devils will lose: There is simply no disputing what the Devils have accomplished this season under Lou Lamoriello. And it is a testament to one of the league's best-run franchises that the Devils were able to pull out of an early tailspin and finish the way they did.
That said, these are not the Devils of old. Defensively, they are slower and less explosive offensively. Brian Rafalski leads all New Jersey blueliners with six goals, a good week's work for Niedermayer. One NHL scout told ESPN.com he thinks the Devils are too slow on the back end to withstand a consistent forecheck. Only Rafalski and Paul Martin skate well enough to make things happen, the scout said.
Beyond their defensive shortcomings, many of which are covered up by Brodeur's steadying influence, the Devils must come to grips with the fact they are a one-line team.
On Tuesday night, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez combined for five more points, including Gionta's franchise-record 47th and 48th goals, reinforcing that the diminutive pair are the Devils' offensive engine. Stop them, and you stop the Devils, one scout said. It says here the Rangers can do just that.
Prediction: Rangers in seven.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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