April 2008

The Rangers will look to put a stranglehold on the series on Sunday night as the Devils visit the Garden on Sunday. To paraphrase Chico Escuela, April 13 has been very, very good to the Rangers during their history.

In the current edition of Blueshirt Bulletin, 2007 Lester Patrick Trophy winner John Halligan wrote that the Rangers won their second Stanley Cup on April 13, 1933 and their third Stanley Cup on April 14, 1940. While the Rangers won’t be winning the Stanley Cup this April 13, they very well may be one step closer to making sure the New Jersey Devils get an early start to their summer vacation.

However, Game 3 is still over 30 hours away as I sit typing so let us focus on what transpired in Game 2. Once again, we watched as the Rangers out-deviled the New Jersey Devils. The Blueshirts managed to block shots, kill penalties and generally frustrate the Devils for over 58 minutes.

Once again the Devils had the better of the play for the first two periods. And once again the Rangers controlled the final 20 minutes of play – a fact that is not lost on both teams.

“What they’re doing to us now is similar to what our organization did to them a couple of years back,” Jamie Langenbrunner told Larry Brooks of the New York Post following the Game 2 loss. “No matter what, they’ve been able to find the way to win these games in the third period.

Henrik Lundqvist expressed a similar sentiment to Brooks prior to the Rangers taking the second game.

“When the game is close going into the third period, we know we can win, “ The King stated. “We have so much confidence against them in those situations.”

The third period numbers are starling when you look at them. The Rangers have outscored the Devils 12-2 through the regular season and playoffs. Even more startling is the breakdown in the first two games of the series. The Rangers lead that important battle 5-1.

So what can we expect in Game 3?

The Devils desperation meter has to be at an 11 on a scale of 1-10. They have not scored more than two goals against the Rangers in any of the 10 games this season. Their power play continues to cough and wheeze. It is one thing not to score on the power play, but it is another thing to not generate much offense on the man advantage. The one saving grace for the Devils is the same can be said of the Rangers power play.

If you thought the devils were trying to get under Lundqvist’s skin in Game 2, wait until you see Game 3. If you thought it was bad when john Madden sat on Henrik’s head as if he was trying to hatch an egg, Game 3 is going to be worse. Expect the Devils to pull a page out of the Sean Avery handbook. If the Minnesota announcers thought Colorado was trying to take liberties with Niklas Backstrom, wait until you see what New Jersey does on Sunday night.

As for the Rangers, Tom Renney is in a good position. The Rangers are playing good enough to win, but “bad enough” for the coach to keep harping on his team to stay focused and to keep doing the little things they need to do to win.

The Blueshirts need to keep on with the idea of working the puck down low along the goal line and behind the net on Martin Brodeur. The more pressure they put on Marty, the greater the chance there will be another lucky break/bounce or another misplay by the Jersey net minder.

With the game at the Garden, Renney will be able to dictate the tempo of the game because he will have the last change. It will be easier for Renney to keep Jaromir Jagr away from the likes of Dainius Zubrus, Michael Rupp and Colin White. With an extra day of rest between Games 3 and 4, Renney might consider double shifting Jagr in an attempt to spark the offense and take advantage of favorable matchups.

One part of the game the Rangers must improve is face-offs. John Madden was dominating Ranger centers all night long, as he won 65% of his draws. Conversely, Chris Drury had a miserable night winning only 27%. I can understand Renney wanting the right-handed shooting Drury on the ice with the face-offs to the right of Lundqvist, but he needs to go with the hot hand. Last night that was Brandon Dubinsky who won 12 of 20 draws.

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In 1994 it was Stephane Matteau. In 1997 it was Adam Graves. Ryan Callahan’s game winning goal wasn’t as dramatic as those series-winning overtime goals, but Ranger fans will take it just the same. The Rangers have now won all five games against the Devils that have ended in regulation time.

The Rangers 4-1 victory helped erase a couple of bad memories. First off, the Rangers ended their four game playoff losing streak to the Devils and ensured that 2005 will not happen again. The Blueshirts, for the time being, rendered the Devils shootout win in the regular season finale moot because home ice advantage has swung to the Rangers.

While they did allow a power play goal, the Rangers won the special teams battle with Callahan’s gamer being a shorthanded goal. The Devils power play goal was inevitable once Martin Straka lost his stick and effectively turned New Jersey’s power play into a five-on-three situation. While the Rangers first goal was not “officially” a power play goal, for all intents and purposes Brendan Shanahan’s tally was a power play goal.

There is not much you can say about the way Scott Gomez stepped up in his first playoff game against his former Devil teammates. After a slow start, Gomez proved his worth with three assists on the first three goals and logging the most ice time among the Ranger forwards (20:03). Gomez was solid on face-offs, winning nine of his 15 draws.

The Rangers other playoff “specialist”, Chris Drury, did not register a point, but he was effective centering the Rangers most consistent line with Callahan and Nigel Dawes. Drury was even better on face-offs as he won 14 of 18 draws.

Make no mistake about it; this series is far from over. The Devils probably played their best game of the nine matchups against the Rangers. New Jersey’s forecheck managed to pin the Rangers in their own end and forced the Blueshirts into too many turnovers. On the positive side, the Rangers defenders did a strong job of keeping their bodies between the puck and the net – a must for effective defensive zone play. To counter the Devils forecheck, the Rangers must pick up their own forecheck. They gave the Jersey defensemen too much room and respect.

In addition to the countering the forecheck, the Blueshirts must be careful when they dump the puck into the Devils zone. The Rangers must keep the puck away from Martin Brodeur. One thing the Rangers were effective in doing was keeping Brodeur busy when there were loose pucks around the net. They managed to keep pucks alive and away from Brodeur. In fact, that part of their game probably caused Brodeur’s mistake on the Callahan goal because it was one of the few times that Brodeur was able to handle the puck in the crease without a Ranger stick poking at a loose puck.

It will be interesting to see if the Rangers try to run some set plays from behind the net. While they might not be effective, they might just cause enough head games to keep Brodeur off his game. Given how close each game of this series should be, the Rangers (and the Devils too for that matter) should be looking for any edge they can get.

Despite the pre-game talk of inserting Jason Strudwick into the lineup, Tom Renney went with his six best defensemen by dressing Paul Mara. Considering how important the power play is in this series, Mara needs to be in the lineup – even though there is some concern as to how physical he can play after discarding the cage protecting his facial injury.

Renney’s decision as to the final forward is a more difficult choice. While the Rangers could use Petr Prucha’s offense, a case can be made for having Ryan Hollweg’s physical play in the lineup. Interestingly enough, the Rangers fourth line did not get as much ice time as they usually do. Depending on the how the series progresses, Renney might want to consider using Prucha for his offense. For the time being, there should not be a problem with Hollweg dressing as the 12th forward.

Someone has to explain to me how John Madden was voted the Third Star last night. While I am not a big Plus-Minus guy, Madden was a Minus-3 with only two shots on goal and no points. If the media really needed to throw the Devils a bone, they could have found someone a little more deserving.

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With apologies to Sam Rosen and Bret “The Hitman” Hart, the fifth installment of hockey’s Hudson River playoff battle will come down to the three “E’s” – 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 – 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 – 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.

“It’s not going to be easy for anybody,” Jagr said in an NHL.com article. “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. …”

The key to finding scoring will center on each team’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 – 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 – 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 – 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,” Jay Pandolfo said in an NHL.com article. “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 – 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 – including the game winner in the final matchup at the Garden. You remember that one – 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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