In a hotly anticipated Eastern Conference final matchup, the Rangers will face what is sure to be another long series against the New Jersey Devils, 18 years after Stephane Matteau scored in double-overtime of Game 7 against Martin Brodeur, which was the last time the two teams met in the Conference Finals.
Game 1 will commence at 8 p.m. in Madison Square Garden, the first night of work for the Devils since Tuesday when they knocked off the Flyers in Philadelphia. Compared to the Rangers’ seemingly non-stop schedule over the last month, New Jersey’s time off can give the team an almost-automatic advantage. There is no doubt the Rangers are tired mentally and physically. The question becomes is this well-conditioned team stronger when given a consistent schedule, or will the third-round of the playoffs weaken them to a point where the squad runs out of gas?
Home-ice advantage has saved the Rangers’ season in the first two rounds thus far, most notably in the Game 7s. Will the energy from the home crowd be enough to stop New Jersey’s surging offense? Will the mocking chants of ‘Marty! Marty!’ give the Rangers an extra push?
There is perhaps no player more ready and willing to face the Rangers than the veteran Martin Brodeur. The 40-year old goaltender has looked like a younger version of himself these first two rounds: in 5 starts against the Flyers, he posted a 2.2 goals against average, allowing only 11 goals on 134 shots. Brodeur is 4-4 against Lundqvist all-time in the postseason, but he said that fans at the Prudential Center have given the Devils a significant boost in these 2012 playoffs.
“[We] never got a chance to get our fans into really cheering us on and being the extra man that we need sometimes because of the way we played in our own building [in the 4-1 Conference Quarterfinal loss to the Rangers in 2008]. And I think this year’s a lot different. We played Florida. Fans were great. We played Philly, a pretty close rival, and the Devils fans were unbelievable, and we expect more of the same when we’re going to get to our building. And that’s going to help us mainly go over, be a little more consistent throughout the whole series here.”
The Devils have lost four of their last five postseason matchups against the Rangers, most recently in 2008. They swept New York in the Conference Quarterfinals in the 2005-2006, but haven’t advanced this far since they won the Stanley cup in 2003. The cross-Hudson rivals have met in only one other Conference Final, a series which anyone in the Tri-state area in 1994 will seldom forget.
In their first Conference Final since the 1996-1997 season, the Rangers will be facing a stronger offense in the Devils and a more reliable goaltender in Brodeur. New York scored only 15 goals in the Washington series, which means they will need to muster more second chances off Brodeur.
Here are some keys for the Rangers, other than Lundqvist being Lundqvist:
- Get men to the front of the net. Brodeur is one of the best when it comes to shutting down rebound opportunities. If the Blueshirts can maintain pressure in front of the crease and put some big bodies such as Brian Boyle and Mike Rupp to screen Brodeur, they should be able to generate solid scoring chances.
- Stay out of the penalty box. In the playoffs, the Devils are 9-for-43 on the man-advantage (20.9%), but have scored in 6 of 18 opportunities at the Prudential Center. New York has been called on several delay of game and too-many-men penalties, which have in some cases swung the momentum the other direction. Two early penalties, both from Anton Stralman, in Games 4 and 6 of the Washington series set the tone and led to losses for the Rangers. If they come out strong, we’re likely to see a consistent effort.
- Score the first goal. Of course, the first goal is always big, but for the Rangers, it makes you or it breaks you. As stated, each team that scored first in the Rangers-Capitals series won the game. New York has been a two-faced team at times this postseason. When they get off to a good start and score early, they remain confident and control the puck better.
Here are the keys for the Devils, aside from Brodeur being Brodeur:
- Keep up the forecheck. New Jersey upped the ante against the Flyers with their unrelenting forecheck presence. The epitome of this persistent voracity came when New Jersey’s David Clarkson caused goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to deflect the puck into his own net in the series clincher. If the Devils were able to shut down Philly’s potent offense, they should be able to do the same against the Rangers’ lighter, less threatening squad.
- Control the puck. If the Devils maintain control of the puck, they will most likely control the game. If they can beat the Rangers at their own technique, i.e. winning puck battles deep and up against the boards, it will smother New York’s chances to generate scoring chances.
- Elevated shots = Elevated success. Lundqvist has shown few weaknesses these playoffs, but the one that has hurt the Rangers more than once is his glove-side high. Shots that come near his pads have almost no chance of entering the cage, so Kovalchuck, Parise and the rest of the Devils’ snipers will be looking towards the top shelf.
Schedule of Games:
Game 1: Monday, May 16 – Devils vs. Rangers, 8:00 PM (ET)
Game 2: Wednesday, May 18 – Devils vs. Rangers, 8:00 PM (ET)
Game 3: Saturday, May 19 – Rangers vs. Devils, 1:00 PM (ET)
Game 4: Monday, May 21 – Rangers vs. Devils, 8:00 PM (ET)
*Game 5: Wednesday, May 23 – Devils vs. Rangers, 8:00 PM (ET)
*Game 6: Friday, May 25 – Rangers vs. Devils, 8:00 PM (ET)
*Game 7: Sunday, May 27 – Devils vs. Rangers, 8:00 PM (ET)
* If necessary
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