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).
With the New Jersey Devils already missing Zach Parise, and it being announced prior to the game that Martin Brodeur would not be in net due to an arm injury, the New York Rangers jumped at the opportunity to get two points, and keep the struggling and wounded Devils at the bottom of the NHL standings.
The Rangers needed a bounce-back game after a bad loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers last night, and what they got was a solid team effort, despite being out shot 33-20, and severely outplayed in the second period, including multiple stretches of time that seemed to last two minutes, where the Rangers could not get the puck out of their own zone. Steve Eminger continued his atrocious defense, looking slow and out of place, including one mis-play in the first period that directly led to one of those stretches when the Rangers could not clear the puck. Alex Frolov was also invisible, and he had a glorious opportunity to break out of his doldrums when he was set up perfectly by Derek Stepan in the slot, with a wide open net, late in the third period, and he shanked the shot wide.
Brandon Dubinsky would continue his torrid goal-scoring pace tonight, getting the Rangers on the board seven and a half minutes into the first, on assists from Frolov and Anisimov. He would then strike again in the third period, with a shorthanded goal, and leave the game tied for first in the NHL in goals, with ten. Dubinsky’s career high in goals is 20, and he is already half way there. I do not expect him to keep up this pace, but he has been fantastic in stepping up for the injured Marian Gaborik, who may return sometime next week.
Brian Boyle would also continue his career year, when he scored his fifth, on the powerplay, with assists going to Girardi and Anisimov. This goal came with only 36 seconds remaining in the second period, and after the Devils were gaining momentum by out playing the sluggish Rangers.
Ahead to the third period, Boyle would be checked from behind by David Clarkson, who received a five-minute major for boarding. The Rangers would fail to capitalize on that powerplay, but used it as a time-kill that kept the Devils from scoring.
Derek Boogaard and the fourth line also skated a regular shift tonight for the first two period, and Boogaard himself had two scoring chances that I counted. He played a season high 6:51 tonight, and actually looked like a hockey player. Grachev received limited time tonight, but I noticed that he really is an incredible skater for someone as big as he is.
The Rangers would get their second shutout by Henrik Lundqvist, who made 33 saves including one highlight reel save on Travis Zajac in the third period, robbing him point-blank. Kovalchuk had skated down the wing and powered to the net, backhanding a pass to the front of the crease to a wide open Zajac who could not bury it.
Though it was not pretty, the Rangers continue to hang tough despite all of their injuries, including another one to Ryan Callahan last night, causing him to miss tonight’s game. Between their four injured forwards, the Rangers were missing 95 goals of production scored by Gaborik, Prospal, Callahan, and Drury last season. With Gaborik close to returning, the Rangers need to hold on just a little but longer, and they can say they saved their season very early on by hard work and playing as a team.
In the last recap when the Rangers beat the Devils, I predicted that John Maclean would be fired by Christmas. I have now changed that to Thanksgiving.
Tonight’s preseason matchup between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils had the look and feel of a regular season game. There was an intensity and a nasty edge throughout, and the scattered amount of fans who made their way to Madison Square Garden got their money’s worth.
There was a nice mix of veterans and kids in what was the Rangers preseason opener. This was the Devils second game, after losing in a shootout to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night. The Devils seemed to be the more rusty team early on, as they made several defensive mistakes that the Rangers capitalized on for goals.
The Rangers would strike first in a game that had goals, hits, fights, and some nice saves by the starting goaltenders Martin Biron and Martin Brodeur. Marian Gaborik would tip in an Alex Frolov pass behind Brodeur to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. Derek Stepan would also get an assist, as he cut to the middle before handing it off to Frolov.
The Devils would strike later in the period, where Travis Zajac would tie it off assists from Kovalchuk and Parise. Both team’s top lines saw all players record points in the first period. The Rangers were getting a look at one of their top prospects, Stepan, while the Devils were seeing if a power line of that caliber would work in a real game. Neither coach could be disappointed through the first twenty minutes.
Five minutes into the second, the Rangers would regain the lead when Frolov scored after stealing the puck and cashing in on a mini breakaway. But the Devils would tie it yet again, when Ilya Kovalchuk scored on a breakaway of his own, after a great long-ice pass from Parise as Dan Girardi just stood by and watched.
Two minutes later, Brian Boyle would use his size and strength to power to the net and slide the puck through Brodeur’s legs and give the Rangers a 3-2 lead. Dale Weise would get an assist on the play.
The third period would begin with a change of goaltenders, as Chad Johnson replaced Biron and Jeff Frazee came in for Brodeur. Neither goalie would face much work, until the Devils would rally to tie for the third time, on a goal by Parise, one that Johnson would have wanted to have back.
The game would then head to overtime tied at three. The Rangers would get a powerplay after Rod Pelley checked Michael Sauer into the boards from behind. Marian Gaborik would then win it for the Blueshirts with a powerplay goal, his second of the game. The Rangers would finish 2-7 on the powerplay.
Both teams stars were the ones who cashed in tonight, and it was good to see Gaborik flying early on. The Devils top line of Kovalchuk-Zajac-Parise was very scary, and should they play like this during the season, the Devils will prove to be a formidable opponent.
Tonight also saw two fights, the first between Adam Mair and Brian Boyle, which was more of a hugging match than an actual bout, but the second, between Prust and Brad Mills was very entertaining. Derek Boogaard was also penalized with a ten-minute misconduct for doing absolutely nothing, at least nothing we could see on camera, after standing next to Pierre Leblond before a faceoff.
The Rangers started the preseason on the right foot, with an intense victory over the New Jersey Devils. These two teams will meet again on Saturday night, at the Prudential Center in Newark.