Rangers-Devils Eastern Conference Final Preview
After rallying to eliminate the Senators in a game seven, and after battling to survive one of the more evenly matched series in recent memory, the Rangers find themselves set to host game one of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday. Their foe is a familiar one. The New Jersey Devils. @JoeBianchino
The Eastern Conference Finals. Not many would have seen the Rangers as a team who could make a run this deep into the playoffs. And yet, here they stand, the winners of two straight bitterly tough series - the latter of which representing the very personification of a back and forth affair. It took seven games for the Rangers to dispatch with the Capitals, with neither team winning back to back games, and only one game having been decided by more than one goal. They went three overtimes in game three, they scored a game-tying goal with only 6.6 seconds left in a game five win, and kept their fans on the very edge of cardiac arrest throughout.
Such a tough win is certainly one that will spur this team on, though looking back, it's difficult to pin-point exactly how the Rangers won. Their defense lapsed at times, and their offense was, once again, less than stellar. You can chalk it up to grit and goaltending, I guess, though the Rangers will certainly need more - let's be honest, they need to score more - when they invite the New Jersey Devils into Madison Square Garden on Monday.
The Devils - who looked mediocre at best in dealing with a poor Florida Panthers team - dominated the Flyers in the second round. Like the Rangers, the Devils play a tight, defensive style, though they house a more impressive offensive potency than their cross-river rivals. The Rangers will need to count on their defensive style to shut down the Devils' best goal scorers, and - when they get control - push the puck forward and control possession when they can.
And though the outcome is very much in doubt, the style of play is not. This will not be the rather cordial - by comparison - affair we watched against the Capitals. The last time these two teams played, a six man brawl broke out on the opening face off, culminating with Stu Bickel bloodying the face of Ryan Carter. These teams don't like each other. These fans don't like each other. And these referees probably won't like either of them after too long. So, how can the Rangers win? Check it:
KEY MATCHUP - Henrik Lundqvist vs. Martin Brodeur: A bit of a cop-out answer? Sure. And possibly a bigger matchup in this series may be the Ranger defense vs. the offensive powers of the Devils. But with both of these teams playing such defensive styles, the skill of the goaltenders may very well be what - more than anything - swings the balance of this series. The first net-minder to give up a cheap one may be the one who sees his team go home.
RANGER LIKELY TO HAVE A BIG SERIES - Ruslan Fedotenko: The obvious answer is Brad Richards, whose offensive game has come alive of late - particularly in big spots. But in the spirit of looking beyond the obvious - at least once in this column - I'm pointing toward the Ukrainian. Fedotenko was one of the best Rangers on the ice in the later portions of the series - blocking shots, making tough plays in the corners, creating scoring opportunities, etc - and looks poised to elevate his game. Fedotenko has been here before, he netted the game winning goal of the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and was brought to this team, in part, to provide that veteran experience. Given that experience, and given his ever improving play, look for Fedotenko as someone who could be big for the Rangers.
RANGER WHO NEEDS TO HAVE A BIG SERIES - Marian Gaborik: Stop me if you've heard that one before - and if you read my preview of Rangers-Capitals, you have. Gaborik has yet to be Gaborik these playoffs, but has looked better of late. He scored the overtime winner in game three and had numerous chances in games five through seven. But with the Rangers' offensive impotency, and their desperate need for goals, the Blueshirts could use their super star goal scorer to be just that. If Gaborik's game could click, with this team's defensive ability, they could be dangerous.
RANGER(S) TO WATCH - Brandon Prust, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan - Boyle, Callahan and Prust. What do these three have in common? Well, it's not their offensive potency - that's not why you should watch them. Instead, these three have in common the fact that big hits, big fights, and big scrums usually involve them. As I said earlier, this series will not be gentleman-like. It will be a physical, hate-filled battle between two bitter rivals. Expect Prust, Boyle, and Callahan to be flying around the ice, hitting everything that moves, and putting their gloves into the faces of whomever they can reach. They may not be dynamic goal scorers, but they'll be damn fun to watch.
PREDICTION: Looking at these teams' most recent series in vacuum paints the picture of a superior Devil squad. But hockey teams don't exist in a vacuum. The Devil team that rolled over the Flyers is the same one that struggled with the Panthers. How much of that Flyer domination do you chalk up to an improving New Jersey side versus a Philadelphia one whose emotional investment had been spent on their bitter series with Pittsburgh? What is the identity of this New Jersey team? I don't know the answers to either. You know what I do know, though? The Rangers. I know who this team is, I know its personality. I know its grit, its determination. I know that in two series this postseason, despite some spotty play, they've found a way to prevail. And I know that I believe in this team. It'll be long, it'll be brutal, it'll be Rangers-Devils. But I'll take the team I know. Rangers in 6. Believe.