Eastern Conference Final preview: Rangers (1) vs. Devils (6)
Both teams play a similar brand of hockey, so constant hard work is a key
Ilya Kovalchuk has had a productive spring and will be targeted by the Rangers
Rest may dull the Devils; do the Rangers have any gas left after two long series?
Regular season series: Rangers win 3-2-1
Key injuries: New York -- C Brandon Dubinsky (foot, indefinite); New Jersey -- none.
Snapshot: The road to the Stanley Cup Final is roughly 14 miles for the Rangers and Devils, the distance between New York City and Newark, N.J. -- best traversed by the PATH trains that run regularly, and occasionally on time. These two teams aren't separated by much geographically, and they don't seem to be separated by much stylistically, either. In real estate, it's location, location, location. For the Rangers and Devils, it's forecheck, forecheck, forecheck.
John Tortorella's Blueshirts got here the same way they eked out their Eastern Conference regular-season title: by contesting every single loose puck. They grind-and-cycle. They dump-and-chase. They forecheck-and-backcheck. They block shots and play every minute of a game as if by the Mayan calendar, seemingly afraid that the end is near. And they are probably right to feel that way. While they have genuine offensive star talent in Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan and Marian Gaborik, these playoffs have shown that they Rangers would be sitting at home right now if not for their mucker-and-grinder teammates, guys like Mike Rupp, Stu Bickel, Brandon Prust, Derek Stepan and Brian Boyle. New York has scored an average of just 2.07 goals per game in 14 postseason contests, but they've allowed only 1.86, and that's good enough for a shot at a Cup final berth.
The Devils have the shinier offensive roster: Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, Petr Sykora -- good scorers all. But the reason why New Jersey is still playing, too, is because their skill guys have bought in to the forechecking, defense-first philosophy of coach Peter DeBoer. They outworked a star-studded Flyers forward group in the last round, creating numerous turnovers by getting in deep on the forecheck.
It will be a fascinating storyline, therefore, to see which team works hardest in the other's zone during this series. The Devils won't find it easy to get the puck in deep against a Rangers team that prides itself on keeping it in the other two-thirds of the ice. New York's Henrik Lundqvist (8-6, 1.68 GAA, .940 save pct.) has shown no letup after his Vezina-worthy regular season. His career record against the Devils isn't bad, either: 25-11-5, 1.79, .936. Meanwhile, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur -- the only player left from the rosters of the teams that met in the epic 1994 Eastern finals -- has been enjoying a renaissance period in which he's stopped 92-percent of the shots he's faced in the playoffs, with a 2.05 GAA.
One big statistical difference between the teams so far: the Rangers have blocked 267 shots to New Jersey's 131 -- albeit in two more games-played. With the Rangers, it's all about sacrifice. The knock against the Devils entering the playoffs was that their forwards wouldn't adapt to a tighter-checking postseason game, but that hasn't turned out to be accurate ... so far. Because the differences between the teams are so few, expect a long series. Travel fatigue shouldn't be an issue.
Spotlight's on: Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils' winger, once maligned as a great scorer only from October to early April, has had a strong postseason (12 points in 11 games). There are no more wisecracks about his $102 million contract. While "bargain" should never be used to describe a player who is making that kind of money, at least we now see why the usually parsimonious Devils never lost faith in their major investment. Still, Kovalchuk must keep it going against a Rangers' forechecking group that figures to be a collection of Pavlov's Dogs every time they see No. 17 on the ice.
X-Factor for the Rangers: Marc Staal on the power play. He could be the big difference-maker in a series against a Devils team that has a soft underbelly to its game: the penalty kill. New Jersey has allowed 12 power-play goals so far, with a 73.9-percent PK rate, the worst of any team still in the playoffs. If point-man Staal can spark a power play that has been hit-and-miss this postseason (15.8 percent), New York's chances of winning will go up substantially.
X-Factor for the Devils: Inactivity. So far in these playoffs, we've seen teams struggle after a long layoff between series. All that rest was supposed to be good for St. Louis and Nashville and Philadelphia after their first-round wins, but their play seemed dulled when their next series started. The Devils have had nearly a week off since beating the Flyers. The Rangers had one day to rest after eliminating Washington on Saturday. We'll see if the Devils lose their edge now, too.
The Pick: The Rangers have lived dangerously this spring, barely escaping their series against Ottawa and Washington. You can only do that for so long. The Devils have more offensive depth than those teams, and they like to forecheck. Brodeur has won four conference titles. Lundqvist? Zero.
Devils in six.
SI.com's Michael Farber explains why he thinks the Eastern Conference Final series between the archrival New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils will be "confrontational" but remain "under control." RUN TIME 3:11
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