- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Two postseasons ago, the Rangers were outclassed by a Devils team many said couldn't compete in the post-lockout world. Now, the two teams will meet again, with New Jersey once again defying predictions of an imminent demise, while the Rangers have retooled with an eye toward a Stanley Cup run.
There are a number of similarities between the two clubs, from their geography to their dependence on an exceptional goaltender to their shocking refusal to embrace the idea of scoring more goals than is absolutely necessary to get by.
The Devils' 3-2 shootout win Sunday, which secured home-ice advantage, may turn out to be a crucial shift, even if the two teams will be able to drive to and from home and away games. The Rangers' 25 home wins were second in the conference to Pittsburgh; they are just 17-15-9 away from Madison Square Garden.
The Devils, meanwhile, were shut out a franchise-record 11 times this season. Their leading scorer, Zach Parise, had only 65 points, so one wonders if the years of leaving it up to goalie Martin Brodeur have finally taken their toll. The Rangers, while just as tepid offensively, boast experience and explosive potential as they make their third straight postseason appearance. Former Devil Scott Gomez has been banged up (ribs), but is always dangerous, and captain Jaromir Jagr is playing his best hockey of the season. Chris Drury has turned around a difficult start to produce timely scoring and Brendan Shanahan still has enough memory reflex from his three Cup wins in Detroit.
The Rangers built themselves for this, a playoff season of close games and gritty battles. The Devils used to be the masters of this kind of hockey. Now, they look like a team whose time is just about past.
1. King Henrik versus The King. When the two teams tangled two springs ago, Henrik Lundqvist was coming off a stellar rookie season, but looked awestruck against the incomparable Brodeur and was relieved by then backup Kevin Weekes early in the series. Weekes is now manning the end of the bench for the Devils, and any awe factor has long since evaporated for Lundqvist. The Rangers owned the Devils in 2007-08, winning seven straight (4-0-3) before Sunday's shootout loss. Lundqvist and Brodeur were the goalies of record in all eight games. Lundqvist has put behind an uneven start (his father was ill in Sweden, a contributing factor to his inconsistent play) to give the Rangers a chance to win every night.
2. Sutter has his say. After a rocky start (the Devils began with a nine-game road trip while their new rink was being completed in Newark and were 3-6-1 through their first 10), rookie coach Brent Sutter finally got into a groove and the Devils flirted with both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference leads through the three-quarter pole. But the Devils have not closed out the season well, failing to win in regulation since March 15. Sutter has been vocal about his team's efforts, or lack thereof. He sent them into the training room after a loss prior to the All-Star break and called their professionalism into question after a 3-0 loss to Philadelphia on Friday. Having gone to the whip often, what does Sutter do when it really matters in his first postseason appearance as an NHL coach?
3. Eye-glazing gala? If you're looking for fire-wagon playoff hockey, you'd better head on down the road to Washington or over to Montreal. When the Devils and Rangers face off, goals will be at a premium. The Rangers ranked 25th and the Devils 27th in goals per game. Both teams employ a tight-checking, passive style that attempts to limit odd-man rushes by opposing teams. Neither possesses a particularly potent power play (the Rangers ranked 21st, the Devils 24th). The teams' top players -- Jagr, Brian Gionta, Patrik Elias and Parise -- got little done offensively during the season series. Look for role players on both sides of the ledger to play the hero in what will undoubtedly be a tight-checking affair: Mike Rupp, David Clarkson and veteran Sergei Brylin for the Devils, and Nigel Dawes, Ryan Callahan and, perhaps, Petr Prucha, if he gets in the lineup.
4. Should I stay or should I go? Jagr has always marched to his own beat, and it appears he will do so until he walks away from the game. All of which makes these playoffs potentially bittersweet for the five-time scoring champ. Rumors abound that Jagr has already signed a deal to return to Avangard Omsk, the Russian elite league team for whom he played during the lockout. Jagr is, as usual, vague about his future plans. There will be much uncertainty regarding Jagr's future; he will become an unrestricted free agent July 1. A long playoff run might make returning to New York a more likely possibility, but with Jagr, you never know. Jagr is just the kind of guy who could emerge when observers are assuming he'll disappear.
5. The thin blue lines. There was a time when the Devils owned the most feared blue line in the NHL with Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Brian Rafalski. Those days are long gone. In their place, Paul Martin is the puck-moving specialist and his supporting cast includes Colin White and youngsters Johnny Oduya, Mike Mottau, Andy Greene and Bryce Salvador, who was brought over from St. Louis at the deadline and will join in when healthy. Workmanlike is more the term that applies to these Devils blueliners. Meanwhile, the Rangers' blue line has had its own share of critics, even if some of the criticism has been unfounded. Christian Backman has been a nice addition since the deadline, but the Rangers lack a true stud along the back end. Analyst and former Rangers GM Neil Smith said he wonders if the Rangers' defense is strong enough to withstand the pressure of playing an opponent every other night "when they know what your weaknesses are."
• John Madden vs. Scott Gomez: Madden remains one of the game's top two-way forwards and it stands to reason he'll spend at least some of this series facing off against longtime former teammate Gomez, who centers the Rangers' top line. Madden can put up offensive numbers (he had 42 points), but if he can neutralize Gomez, the Rangers' catalyst, then New York will be in big trouble.
• Devils: Elias and Parise tied for the team lead with eight game-winning goals each. Travis Zajac has one goal in his past 22 games and is minus-11.
• Rangers: Jagr had 22 points in his past 21 games. Sean Avery has been held without a goal in 13 of his past 14 games.
Losing home-ice advantage in Game 82 is a bitter pill for the Rangers, but it's still hard to believe the Blueshirts' experience and edge in talent won't see them through to the second round. Rangers in six.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
If you're looking for fire-wagon playoff hockey, you'd better head to Washington or Montreal. But Scott Burnside says the Rangers' experience and offensive potential will win out over the Devils.