Mon 14 May 2012
Only time will tell how the sixth Battle of the Hudson will end. The first two playoff meetings between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils were seven game battles while the last three series have not gone past five games.
The hockey stars have aligned as the Rangers and Devils meet in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since that legendary 1994 showdown that featured a trio of double overtime games – the last of which was won on Stephane Matteau’s signature goal.
Depending on how long this series goes, there will be a chance that karma or revenge rears its head. Game 6 will be played on the same date is Game 6 in 1994 (May 25) when Mark Messier willed the Rangers to victory. Game 7 is also set for the same date (May 27) as the Rangers thrilling series clinching win.
Ranger fans have become accustomed to the Rangers winning Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. Prior to 1992, that was not the case. The Rangers first Game 7 victory came against the Devils in 1992 in the first of the five playoff meetings.
Interestingly, the epic 1994 series was the first Eastern Conference Finals that did not feature either the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens since 1985 when the Philadelphia Flyers eliminated the Quebec Nordiques.
The 1997 series featured the end of an era as it would mark the final playoff appearance for the Rangers until the first post-lockout season of 2005-2006 when the Devils swept the Rangers as Martin Brodeur bested Henrik Lundqvist in three of the games.
The 2008 series was infamous for Sean Avery’s unique screening tactic where he turned his back on the play to “face guard” Brodeur – and thus initiating the “Avery Rule” that made that play a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That series also saw the Devils lose all three games at home.
The 2012 version of the Battle of Hudson features two of the best goaltenders to strap on the pads – both of whom are at different points of their careers.
The 40-year-old Brodeur is nearing the end to a Hall of Fame career while Henrik Lundqvist is playing as well as he ever has in his seven year career. Prior to Lundqvist’s NHL debut, Brodeur’s Devils dominated the series. While the Rangers eventually became a better team by the time Lundqvist joined the Blueshirts, it is no coincidence that The King and his play has tipped the rivalry the Rangers way.
In 34 regular season games against Brodeur and the Devils, Lundqvist is 23-6-5 with a 1.73 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, plus five shutouts. During 2011-2012, Lundqvist was 3-2 with a 1.41 GAA and a .937 SV% against the Devils.
Interestingly enough, Lundqvist’s regular season numbers are close to his numbers in the playoffs – a 1.68 GAA and a .937 SV%.
Mike Rupp offered his perspective on the Rangers-Devils rivalry.
“I think it is a rivalry of territory in this area. I remember being on the other side and, in the playoffs there would be more [Rangers] jerseys than [Devils jerseys]. It was the kind of things that made you hate them more.”
Rupp is not the only player who has witnessed the rivalry from both sides. Petr Sykora played 40 games for the Rangers and was a member of the 2006 team that was swept by the Devils.
Two other Devils were drafted by the Rangers, but never played in the NHL with them. Marek Zidlicky (#176 in 2001) came close, but wanted a one-way contract. He was eventually dealt away to Nashville along with Tomas Kloucek and Rem Murray in exchange for Mike Dunham in December 2002. Eric Boulton (#234 in 1994) played a couple of minor league years in the Rangers system before making the NHL with Buffalo in 2000-2001.
After a regular season series that featured 11 fights, it is no surprise that there is some bad blood between the two teams.
“I’m sure the hatred will be there right from the start, so I think just keep it focused on what you need to do on the ice and not get too wrapped up in losing your emotions and letting them get away from you,” Marc Staal said to Colin Stephenson of NJ.com.
For their part, the Devils realized that their path to the Stanley Cup Finals would run down Broadway.
“You kind of got the sense that we were going to run into them sooner or later if we kept winning,” Captain Zach Parise admitted to Rich Chere of NJ.com. “It will be exciting. It’s going to get a lot of local media attention. Having played in two series against them, it’s hyped-up pretty good. The atmosphere in both buildings is great, so we’re looking forward to it. We’ll be prepared.”
So, should fans be prepared for more gong show type antics during the series?
“I said earlier this is going to be decided by the guys with the skates on and on the ice,” Coach Peter DeBoer said to Tom Gulitti of The Record. “It’s not going to be decided, in my mind, behind the bench, or in a coach’s room. You get to this point of the year, the final four teams are all well-schooled in the X’s and O’s and the system and the strategy. It comes down to will and some bounces and some health and that’s all decided inside the boards, not behind the benches.”
As you might expect, Rangers Coach John Tortorella is trying to downplay the circus-like atmosphere that is sure to grip this series.
“We talk about being one of the four teams playing, (the players) need to embrace that because it’s hard to get there,” Tortorella explained during Sunday’s post-practice press conference. “So I want them to embrace that. But I just hope the team is not too interested in getting caught up in all the sideshows as far as Jersey-New York Rangers. I think it’s great for the area, don’t get me wrong, but we have to concentrate on who we are and what we have to do to win some hockey games.”
It is no surprise that Patrik Elias (2-3-5) Ilya Kovalchuk (2-2-4), Petr Sykora (1-3-4), and Z Parise (1-2-3) were among the leading scorer for the Devils during the regular season. The fact that former tough guy David Clarkson (3-1-4) was New Jersey’s leading goal scorer is a surprise.
Speaking of surprises, it is hard to believe that Carl Hagelin is the leading scorer in the series during the regular season with two goals and six assists. Derek Stepan (2-4-6), Marian Gaborik (2-3-5), and Ryan Callahan (1-3-4) were among the Rangers leading scorers. Noticeably absent is Brad Richards who only registered a pair of assists.
As far as the game itself, the Rangers must remember that worked so well against Braden Holtby and Craig Anderson are the things that need to do against Brodeur. They will need to work to get shots on a goal and make a concerted effort to get traffic on front of Brodeur.
The key to that will be finding a fine line between getting in Brodeur’s head and crossing the line and taking penalties because Marty does have the reputation for attempting to draw penalties at the first hint of contact.
Another thing the Rangers need to remember that Brodeur can be vulnerable at times on plays that develop from behind the net – whether they are passes to the slot or wraparound attempts like Matteau’s winner in 1994 and Adam Graves’ winner in 1997.
The Rangers will need to correct some other offensive tendencies in order produce more offense in this series. While the Devils penalty killing was superb during the regular season, they struggled during the playoffs allowing 12 goals in 12 games (although most of those were against Florida). As a result, the Rangers sputtering power play might be able to make a difference.
On the attack, the Rangers have to use more of the middle of the ice. Far too many times during the first series, Ranger forwards veered towards the boars rather than attack down the middle. By drifting to the boards, the Blueshirts limit their offensive options.
The Devils defense does not feature top offensive threats like Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar, Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik. With that said, the Rangers need to be very active on their forecheck and put pressure on the Devils workman-like blueliners.
Conversely, the Devils are going to try and do the same thing to the Rangers in terms of getting in on the forecheck. It will remain to be seen if they will take a page out Washington’s playbook and attempt to beat the Rangers with long breakout passes.
You can bet that the Devils are going to be prepared for the Rangers shot blocking, something they worked on during the regular season according to Gulitti who wrote on his Fire & Ice Blog, “One of the points the Devils discussed after that 2-0 Feb. 27 loss was getting the puck back to the point men and making sure they stay out near the blue line and aren’t sucked in closer to the net – creating less space to move the puck and making it easier for the Rangers’ forwards sit back to block shots and help out defensively.”
The Capitals’ sustained surges in the Rangers zone were keyed by the Capitals ability to take advantage of their open defensemen at the point.
Much has been made about the Rangers having to face a quick series turnaround for the second time in the playoffs. Unlike Washington who also faced a seven-game first round battle, the devils are a rested team.
The question for Game is will the Devils be able to shake off the rust or will the Rangers be a tired team?
Lundqvist sees the merit on both theories.
“You can look at it in so many different ways,” Lundqvist said to Andrew Gross of The Record. “Of course we’re going to say it’s good for us, they’re going to say it’s great for them because they got some rest in the long run. But I think for us it is good. We’re in it right now. We don’t overthink anything, we’re just going to go out and keep playing the way we’ve been playing lately and I think the more time you spend just waiting to play, I think maybe you tend to overthink things.
If Tortorella has anything to say about the subject, it will be the Devils rust that plays a part because he will not accept any excused from his team.
“I don’t want to hear players saying they’re tired right now. If we are tired right now, then we don’t have the right mindset as far as what you have to do. This is why we give our team rest during the year,” Tortorella stated.
For what it is worth, Barry Melrose of the NHL Network appears ready to jump on the Blueshirts’ bandwagon.
“For the Devils to win, Marty has to be great. When I watched the Rangers tonight, if they can put four or five of these games together, I don’t know if anyone can beat them.”
Reflecting back on 1994 Adam Graves told the AP, “It was a different game back then. I just remember how much of a war it was and how you had to fight for every inch, and the battles in front of the net. I can remember, physically, how taxing it was going against guys like [Ken] Daneyko and [Scott] Stevens and just the battles in the corner.”
It might be a different game now, but this series should mirror 1994 in intensity, passion and overall physical play.
The Rangers fought long and hard during the regular season to secure home ice in any seventh and deciding games. It paid off during the first two rounds against the Senators and the Capitals, and it will pay off again against the Devils. The pick is the Rangers in seven.
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