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.
Both teams played exceptionally well during the season, and both deserve to be here now. The season series went tied 3-3, but what it lacked in lopsidedness, it made up for in aggression. There were plenty of fights and there was plenty of checking in each game, indicative of what this match-up creates, and now on its grandest stage for these cross-town rivals since the 2007/08 season when they last met in the first round, with the Rangers winning it in five. The time before that, in the first season after the lockout, it was the Devils who were victorious, sweeping a disjointed and injured Rangers team in four games, which sent the dagger through the heart of Rangers’ improbable run that season. So, since the new era of hockey began six seasons ago, the playoff match-up is tied. Something has got to give, as they say, but which way will the shoe drop?
Neither team had an easy time in the first round, as both were picked as the resounding favorites, yet both needed a full seven games (and some overtimes thrown into the mix) for it to be decided. In the next round, the setting became quite contrasting. The Devils easily dispatched of the Flyers, who seemed to have used all their energy taking care of the hated Pittsburgh Penguins and had nothing left to give. This is not meant as a knock on the Devils, but as I told my friend who is a Devils fan as we were watching Game Five together, “I can’t tell if the Devils are that good, or if the Flyers are just that bad.” He understood. The Devils are good, no doubt, giving reason to be feared, but Ilya Bryzgalov going into beach-ball mode did not help things either. As for the Rangers, they again had a difficult time, but eventually overcame it in seven games due to their unwillingness to get unnerved and change the system. The Rangers played playoff hockey—by way of low-scoring, tight-checking, shot-blocking bonanzas—all during the regular season, so this was nothing new to them. While most teams alter their systems for the playoffs to put defense first, the Rangers are just “going about their business”, as coach John Tortorella likes to say. This includes finding a way to win when their play is not at its best, Henrik Lundqvist stealing a game, and of course, always bouncing back from tough losses with a shining performance in the next game.
One would give the goaltending edge to Henrik Lundqvist (8-6; 1.68 GAA) and the Rangers here, because he is younger, but remember, this is Martin Brodeur (8-3; 2.05 GAA) and the playoffs we are talking about. While the 40-year-old goalie is prone to bouts of soft goals, he will no doubt bring his A-game in this series, as it might be his last hurrah, and he knows that. The offense is a wash as well—Brad Richards (6G, 5A) and Marian Gaborik (4G, 6A) cancel out the two best performers for the Devils thus far, Ilya Kovalchuk (5G, 7A) and Travis Zajac (5G, 5A). As playoffs most often do, the scoring advantage may go to the team with the deeper roster. Whose second, third, or even fourth lines can get the job done with the opposing defense zeroing in on the top line? For the Devils, there is still top-liner Zach Parise who has had a slow start to the playoffs, with only four goals and four assists, but then for the Rangers, their captain is also struggling, as Ryan Callahan only has three goals and three assists. If these two players can find a way to get going, we may be in for more of a high-scoring series than everyone thought, because the defense cannot watch everybody. The Rangers desperately need some goals from Carl Hagelin, and can we ask for a little more from baptized-by-fire Chris Kreider? Brian Boyle has been solid defensively, but has not scored since the opening round when he netted three. The Devils, meanwhile, could use more from Patrik Elias and deadline acquisition Alex Ponikarovsky, who has only one goal, albeit an important one, in the twelve games New Jersey has played. Look for Petr Sykora to step up as well, because he always shines in these situations.
The one clear distinction people will be able to make when comparing these two teams is a fair one: the rest factor. The Devils will have had a week off, and the Rangers only one day. You can argue this two ways: 1) The Devils will be rusty after such a long time off, and the Rangers just played the other day and are already in the zone, or 2) The Rangers are going to be too tired and exasperated coming off a highly emotional game seven victory to be able to settle down to play the Devils who have had plenty of time to get their focus. Take your pick. While it is my duty as a Ranger fan to say the Rangers will win, as I am picking them in six games (if only because my heart cannot take another game seven), I do think the Devils will steal game one, with the Rangers bouncing back for game two, after regaining their composure.
All in all, I think we are going to see a close series, with games not being decided by more than two goals, and it going at least six games. However, I do think there will be a bit more offense here, and scores will be going into the threes and fours, as opposed to the ones and twos we have seen with the Rangers previously. In the end, as it always does, it will come down to goaltending. Who will be the ultimate victor? Does Marty have one more under his belt, and will he go out like a champ? Or will it be the time he passes the torch on to Henrik as the premiere goaltender in the Atlantic Division? The next few games shall tell us the answer, and as we all know, it is going to be a hell of a ride. Try to enjoy it, and try to have some fun. Keep the smack talk clean, and let the atmosphere take you on this intense journey. It’s going to be one for the ages.