Wed 9 Apr 2008
With apologies to Sam Rosen and Bret Ã¢â‚¬Å“The HitmanÃ¢â‚¬Â Hart, the fifth installment of hockeyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Hudson River playoff battle will come down to the three Ã¢â‚¬Å“EÃ¢â‚¬â„¢sÃ¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Excellence of Execution and Effort.
The New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils present mirror images of each other. Both teams rely on big-time goaltending with doses of checking and offensive ineptitude thrown in for good measure. As a result, the Rangers-Devils series goes against the conventional wisdom of playoff hockey. Heck, it goes against the conventional wisdom of all sports when it comes to the playoffs.
The old adage is that defense wins championships. For the vast majority of cases that is the truth. However, the Rangers-Devils series is going to be decided by offense Ã¢â‚¬â€œ as in which team will be able to generate some. In eight regular season games, the two teams combined for a total of 26 goals (one which was an empty net goal).
Since both teams are so evenly matched, the Rangers must find a way to limit their mistakes and find a way to play hard for 60 minutes Ã¢â‚¬â€œ something that sometimes eludes the Blueshirts grasp. The best way for the Rangers to limit their mistakes is to get the Devils back on their heels, and the best way to do that would be for the Rangers to ramp up their forechecking and put extra pressure on the Devils defensemen.
Each shift will resemble something out of an American Revolution battle that was decided on hand-to-hand combat. Both teams will have to grind out each shift and hope for their opponent to make the first mistake. This idea is not lost on Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It’s not going to be easy for anybody,Ã¢â‚¬Â Jagr said in an NHL.com article. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Not only today, but every game we played, it was pretty tight. Most of the games were decided by one goal or went to overtime. …Ã¢â‚¬Â
The key to finding scoring will center on each teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s power play unit. As one might expect, both teams spent the regular season struggling to find any consistency with the man advantage. The Devils finished the season with the 25th best power play (15.6%) while the Rangers finished as 22nd (16.5%).
There was not much difference when it came to penalty killing. The Devils were the 13th best penalty killers (82.8%) and the Rangers finished as the sixth best penalty killers (84.6%). However, there was one big distinction when it came to special teams between the two teams.
The Rangers were the better team during the season series with the Devils. The Blueshirts held the Devils to just one power play goal in 27 attempts (3.7%) while the Rangers scored six times on 30 chances (20%). The Rangers finished the season as strong as a team could by killing off 32 of their last 33 penalties Ã¢â‚¬â€œ with the lone goal coming on a five-on-three power play. Offensively, the Rangers scored 7 power play goals in their last 29 chances Ã¢â‚¬â€œ although they did allow a shorthanded goal against the Islanders during a two-man advantage.
There is some sentiment that the Devils head into the series with some momentum after finally beating the Rangers in the last game of the season Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a win that meant more than just home ice advantage to the Devils.
“It was important to get home ice, but it was just as important to get the win, if not just for our own psyche,Ã¢â‚¬Â Jay Pandolfo said in an NHL.com article. Ã¢â‚¬Å“They beat us seven times, and to find a way to get a win against them is huge. …”
The only problem with that line of thinking is that the Devils win came in a shootout, as opposed to a regulation win. While going 1-4-3 was more important to the Devils than going 8-0-0 was to the Rangers, the simple fact is that the Rangers won all four games that were decided in a sixty minutes Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a more telling fact that the Devils avoiding an eighth loss to the Rangers.
A more telling sign in that season finale might be the Rangers ability to rally from a two-goal deficit. There was a time when Martin Brodeur with a two-goal lead was just as automatic as a Mariano Rivera save. Unfortunately for the Devils, times have changed.
While Brodeur still stands as one of the best clutch goaltenders come playoff time, the aura of his invincibility is not as great as it used to be. While some will criticize Henrik Lundqvist because he has only won one of his three playoff series matchups, The King did outplay his rival from New Jersey during the regular season. Brodeur posted a .922 save percentage while Lundqvist posted a .956 save percentage.
Even with Henrik out dueling Marty and with Brodeur not as invincible as he has been in the past, this series is the one matchup where the Rangers do not hold a strong edge in goal. That is just one of the tradeoffs the Rangers get for not facing a team with more speed (such as Montreal) or offensive fire power (such as Pittsburgh).
You can expect both teams to look to increase their number of shots on goal and you can bet both teams will try and get the opposing netminder off his game. It is a given that Sean Avery and Martin Brodeur will renew the outgoing battle they have had since Avery became a Ranger last season.
Conversely, look for the Devils to try and create more traffic in front of Lundqvist and look for some of the Devils more physical forwards to try a create an Avery-like disturbance in front of Lundqvist.
It is no coincidence that the Rangers two leading scorers against the Devils are Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. Rangers President/GM Glen Sather signed both players with an eye towards their performances on the big stage. Drury led New York with four goals and four assists against the Devils while Gomez chipped in with one goal and five assists.
One surprise of the season series was Nigel Dawes who scored four goals and 1 assist against the Devils Ã¢â‚¬â€œ including the game winner in the final matchup at the Garden. You remember that one Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the one that banged in off a sliding Dawes as he followed the puck into the net.
The Devils leading scorers against the Rangers were Jamie Langenbrunner (2-1-3) and Dainius Zubrus (1-2-3).
One final thing to keep in mind is who will emerge as the big-time player when the games go to overtime. Given that half of the regular season games when beyond 60 minutes, it is a good bet that we will see a couple of chances for the next Stephane Matteau to step forward.
Keeping the potential for multiple overtime games in mind, Joe Sakic is first among active playoff participants with seven playoff overtime goals. There is a four way tie for second with four playoff game winners. Jeremy Roenick is one of those players and the other three are Chris Drury, Jaromir Jagr and Jamie Langenbrunner.
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