Well, this is what we were all waiting for: the series of the year. While fans of the New York Rangers rooted wholeheartedly for the Florida Panthers, and, dare I say it, Philadelphia Flyers in the first two rounds, the New Jersey Devils’ fans cheered on the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals with a passion. All the ill-wishing was for naught, however, as it is only by destiny and the fate ordained to us by the Hockey Gods (with a little consideration for league economics; did you hear that sound at about 10:15 Saturday night? That was the thud of NBC Sports Corporation executives jumping up and down) that these are the two teams which will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, the prelude to the Stanley Cup. These two teams met there once before, when the Rangers defeated them in seven games back in 1994, thanks to a double-overtime winner by Stephane Matteau, but that moment is long gone now, except for the Devils that hold onto the final shred: the only player still currently playing that was on either team, Martin Brodeur. That was his first full season, and now many think this one will be his last—either way, you can be sure that the Rangers would love nothing more than to see Brodeur’s career begin and end with a Conference Finals loss at their hands, while Brodeur will do everything in his power to have the last laugh this time.
It’s a shame that the blame for this disastrous season of New Jersey Devils hockey will rest on the shoulders of a man who once was a fan favorite as a player for this team, one who scored nearly 350 goals while wearing the red, white, and black [and green]. John Maclean is in his first year as a head coach in the NHL, and he is finding out that games are not like the AHL, where it’s okay if the team loses, as long as the players learned something along the way. In the NHL, the big show, games are about winning—something the Devils have done only five times out of 20, and only once on home ice.
The blame can really be thrown in any direction: an aging Brodeur, a shoddy defense, an injury plagued start to the season, or perhaps even a cancerous acquisition in Ilya Kovalchuk, but nevertheless, it is John Maclean who will take the blame, for even though you can use any one of these aforementioned excuses, this team should not be this bad. They have not even been bad, that has been an understatement. Devils teams of the past who were based on 95% defense and 5% offense still found a way to average more than two goals a game, something that the Devils have not even come close to. They have scored a minuscule 36 goals in 20 games—it’s a miracle they have even won five games with that number. In return, they have also given up 65 goals, an amount that does not lead the league, but might as well since it is so disproportionate to their amount of goals scored.
Their goaltending, which has always been their one, true consistency, is in shambles. Martin Brodeur has been injured twice now, including this recent spell that will have him out the next two weeks. His stats this season are 4-10-1 with a goals against average of 2.74. I could jump on the wagon and say Brodeur was never that good to begin with, his numbers a product of a trap defense that had him facing only 20 shots a night, but for now, I will leave that alone as more attention does not need to be brought upon it from someone who is not a Devil’s fan—they can now see it for themselves. What does Brodeur have left to play for, exactly? He has three Stanley Cups, four Vezina’s, and almost every single goaltending record in the book. The drive towards those records reflected a player only playing for personal statistics found on the back of a hockey card, and not playing for his team, something that is so evident when looking at the amount of games he would play during the course of the season, an amount leaving him so tired that his team would be bounced out of the first round of the playoffs in embarrassing fashion. But that’s okay, he’s still the winningest goaltender in history. Keep telling yourself that, Marty.
Johan Hedburg, the Devil’s backup whose signing was praised as the next best thing since sliced bread, has been atrocious this season. His record is only 1-2-1, but his GAA is a bloated 4.53, and the Devils look like they will now be relying on call-up Mike McKenna to hold down the fort until Marty the Magnificent can make his gallant return. With no amazing prospects in the farm system, aside from Jeff Frazee who is said to be solid, the Devils are empty in the goaltending department, and should consider drafting one this season with their first round pick. But they will have to choose wisely, because one of the picks will be taken away by the NHL as punishment for the Kovalchuk fiasco.
As for Ilya Kovalchuk, I already said previously that the Devils had 27 games last season to see what he would bring, in terms of putting extra fans in the seats and developing chemistry. What they got was a point per game player, but nothing outstanding. He continued to be his same old self, being lazy on defense and pretending to not know what backchecking is. The truth is, to write about Ilya Kovalchuk would be cause for a separate article as his season has been a microcosm of the Devils: all promise, and all fail. Remember during the preseason when the Kovalchuk-Zajac-Parise line was tearing it up and scoring two goals a game? Remember when The Hockey News picked the Devils to finish in fifth? Parise’s injury cannot be why this season has gone by the wayside. Kovalchuk is a six-time 40 goal scorer—you don’t score 342 goals before reaching age 28 by being terrible. No, the blame will rest on the shoulders of coach John Maclean, who has not been able to motivate this team.
It is worthy of mention that last night, as the Devils were having yet another loss handed to them, Maclean could be standing on the bench with his arms crossed and shaking his head, the obvious frustration strewn all over his face. But unfortunately, shaking your head does not translate into anger with your players. I am not one to advocate a coach having a conniption, but if there is a team in the league that needs such a wake up call, it would be the Devils. Had it not been for the New York Islanders losing twelve in a row, and the Edmonton Oilers stuck in the middle of a rebuild-and-learn season, the Devils would be occupying last place all by themselves. But still, this team is not so bad that they should be playing like this.
Jacques Lemaire coached this team to their best regular season in franchise history last year, winning 48 games. What thanks does he get? He was booed out-of-town because fans were sick of defensive hockey. “Give us run and gun!” they said, begging Old Lou for an offensive minded coach, and this preseason, fans got their wish when the Maclean-lead Devils were tearing through opponents on the score sheet. But when the regular season started, that all went away. The team did have the offensive tools in Parise, Kovalchuk, Zajac, Elias, Rolston, and Arnott, but the defense was just not there to protect the team’s 38-year-old goaltender. The goals against mounted while the goals for went down, to compensate for the lost defense. Maclean is now left there with no options to go to. He cannot spark his superstar, because Kovalchuk is now in one of his frustrated moods, and he cannot wait for Parise to return, because it will be too late.
If the Devils want any hope at salvaging this season, they will need to fire John Maclean. When they get healthy, they are just one large winning streak away from coming close to contention, and then one more from surmounting the deficit they have created. It may sound crazy, but the Devils are not done yet—every season we sit back and say that this is the year they miss the playoffs, and every year they make it. This season we said nothing, and look at what has happened. The Devils are one team that can still salvage this season, but they will need a new coach. There are not many options out there, but I can think of one that absolutely makes sense, and that is Bob Hartley. The ex-Avalanche and Thrashers head coach has Stanley Cup experience, has coached Kovalchuk in the past, and most importantly, plays a defense-first style. Devils fans may shudder at that phrase “defense-first”, but look at where it got you: three Stanley Cups and the top of the league’s respectability (before angering the league with the Kovalchuk situation).
For the second straight so-called “meaningless” game, the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils squared off. For the second straight game, there was excitement and intensity from start to finish. For the second straight game, there was a nasty edge shown by both teams that made the feel of the game seem anything but meaningless. For the second straight game, the Rangers would be victorious over the Devils in overtime.
The game started out very lethargically from a Rangers standpoint. After trailing early on, they would quickly tie it before going silent. For the first two periods, there were no stand-out players except Ryan Callahan, who scored the team’s first goal and made some very nice blocks on the penalty kill. The team lacked energy at times, and the defense and goaltending was shaky.
But the team woke up in the third period, scoring three goals and adding another in overtime to defeat the Devils after trailing 3-1 and 4-2.
Even though the game technically is meaningless, the Rangers can take a lot away from tonight. Aside from Lundqvist, none of the Rangers major stars were playing, and they relied on showcasing the youth of the organization. Meanwhile, the Devils went without Brodeur, but used their offensive weapons, fielding the same lethal top line of Parise, Zajac, and Kovalchuk, and adding Elias and Arnott. Hedburg would get the start in net for them, and both goaltenders played the entire game.
The Devils got on the board just over two minutes in, on a goal by Ilya Kovalchuk. Callahan would tie it less than a minute later, with assists from Fedotenko and White. The Devils then grabbed the lead again, shortly after, with a goal from defenseman Andy Greene. Matt Taormina would add to the Devils lead in the second, while the Rangers went silent in the middle frame.
Where the offense lacked in the second, though, was made up for with fisticuffs. After Clarkson and Avery met along the boards, Clarkson dropped his gloves wanting to fight, while Avery did not. This is the second time this has happened going back to last season, and Avery is clearly in his head. As Avery headed to the penalty box, he met with another one of his favorite targets in Kovalchuk, and the two attempted to fight before being separated. Clarkson jumped in, being the third man, but was not penalized a minute for the whole affair. Avery would get four minutes for roughing and a ten minute misconduct, while Kovalchuk received two minutes.
The third period began with a powerplay goal by Matt Gilroy, assisted by Del Zotto and Fedotenko. This would be the first of four powerplay goals on the night for the Rangers. The Devils would respond again, getting back the two goal lead when Rolston shot one short-side on Lundqvist, but the Rangers did not quit.
Anisimov would score at the ten minute mark from Callahan and Del Zotto, and Fedotenko scored two minutes later, from Gilroy and Del Zotto. This would happen after Dane Byers fought with David Clarkson and was effectively beaten, and before Kris Newbury of the Rangers would square off and defeat Bryce Salvador.
Then game then headed to overtime with the Rangers once again on the powerplay. Del Zotto would cap off the win, and a great night for himself, with a blast from the point past Hedburg. Tim Kennedy would get on the board for the first time this fall, and Callahan added his second assist.
The Rangers had multi-point games from Del Zotto (1-3), Fedotenko (1-2) and Callahan (1-2). Meanwhile, the Devils first line was still surging from the night before, and are proving to be more than adequate.
Once again, it was hard to believe this was a preseason game. These two teams clearly hate each other and I really hope this passion can carry over into the regular season. In other observations, Lundqvist looked rusty, Exelby was awful on defense, and I don’t think there is a player in the Atlantic Division who will fight Derek Boogaard.
The Rangers will head up to Detroit tomorrow night to take on the Red Wings at 5pm.
Henrik Lundqvist was absolutely brilliant tonight, and deserved the win. It wasn’t pretty, but the Rangers would get him that 30th win in a shootout, with some late game heroics by Chris Drury. Lundqvist is now the only goaltender in NHL history to have five straight 30 wins seasons to start a career.
The first period was played predominately in their own end, and were out-shot 9 to 4. Kovalchuk would score his first goal in three games against the Rangers since being acquired by New Jersey. The play was a result of blown coverage by both Redden and Gilroy, but more so to Redden for failing to cover the streaking Kovalchuk. Jody Shelley and Andrew Peeters would also fight, with Shelley having the edge early, before Peeters caught up at the very end.
The Rangers would get the goal back in the second, though, as Brandon Dubinsky continues to raise his career highs, netting his 17th of the season, on the powerplay, with assists from Del Zotto and Avery. The Rangers would head into the third period tied 1-1.
But the Devils would grab the lead for the second time in the game, when Patrik Elias unleashed a one-timer wrist shot over the shoulder of Lundqvist, but once again, the Rangers would answer back on an Anisimov goal, with assists going to Prust and Shelley.
The problem that has plagued the Rangers all season has been consistency, and for a period of about 45 seconds, with the score tied 2-2, they played horrible defensively, allowing three odd-man rushes, and then completing a terrible line change that led to the Devils scoring again, taking the lead for the third time in the game.
When everything seemed bleak, Rangers Captain Chris Drury would tie the game at 3-3 with just 17.5 seconds remaining. The game would go to overtime, and then to a shootout, where Erik Christensen would score the only goal, giving the Rangers the win.
The line of Prust-Anisimov-Shelley was the best trio of forwards for the Rangers, which can be considered both good at bad. Olli Jokinen played just over eight minutes tonight, and has been invisible for the last few games. If he keeps up this pace, he will not have to worry about getting a contract from the Rangers this summer.
With Boston losing in regulation, and the Flyers and Thrashers falling in OT, the Rangers are still very much alive in the playoff race. With back to back wins over division rivals, perhaps this will be enough to wake the Rangers up. Only one question remains: is it too little, too late?