Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 3
New Jersey Devils (8-4) vs. New York Rangers (8-6)
8:00 PM E.T.
TV: NBCSN, CBC
Radio: Bloomberg 1130 AM
Tonight is the first game of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. A familiar foe stands in the way of a Stanley Cup berth for the Devils this spring: the rival Rangers. The Devils and Rangers will re-new their bitter rivalry once again. The regular season series was pretty even, as all six games featured a score within one goal at some point in the third period, and each team won three of the six matchups. Winning this series is more than bragging rights, though. The winner of this series wins the Eastern Conference and will be four wins away from a championship.
New York Rangers (39-15-6, 84 points) vs. New Jersey Devils (35-22-4, 74 points)
7:30 PM E.T.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: WFAN 660 AM
Tonight will renew one of the best rivalries in the NHL. The Devils and Rangers always produce exciting games. The Devils own the all-time series lead, and lead this season’s series, 2-1 so far. A Devils win tonight would mark the first time any NHL team defeated the Rangers three times this season. The Rangers won the first game of the season between the two teams at Prudential Center, 4-1 on December 20th. The Devils tried to cling to a 1-0 lead for most of the game after Travis Zajac scored his first of the season, but the Rangers scored three straight goals, plus an empty netter, all of which came in the late second period and third period. The Devils won the second meeting against the Rangers in a shootout on January 31st. Zach Parise scored in that game, and while trailing 2-1 and 3-2, Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson both scored game-tying goals against Martin Biron in the final 5 minutes before winning in a shootout. The Devils also won the most recent meeting, 1-0 at Madison Square Garden. David Clarkson’s first period power play goal was the difference, and Martin Brodeur recorded his first shutout of the season.
So, what will tonight’s chapter of the Hudson River Rivalry give us?
Bump in the road:
After a 9-1-1 run out of the All-Star break, the Devils suffered their first back-to-back losses in regulation this past weekend, after falling 2-1 to Vancouver and 4-3 to Tampa Bay. The Devils didn’t play poorly on Friday against the Canucks, but they couldn’t produce enough offense at the right time. Cory Schneider also robbed the Devils of a second goal in that game. Yesterday was a more frustrating day for the Devils. Adam Larsson struggled in his first game back from injury, and Marek Zidlicky made his Devils debut, but they fell to the Lightning. Martin St. Louis was too much for the Devils to contain. He factored in the scoring of all four Tampa Bay goals, including his sixth career hat trick. The Devils have now surrendered hat tricks to Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul and St. Louis this season. Ilya Kovalchuk has the Devils’ lone hat trick this season.
Still, the Devils jumped out to a 5-0 record post-All-Star break before dropping games to St. Louis in a shootout and Florida. They followed that up by winning four straight games before their most recent hiccup. They’ve also gone 12-2-1 over their past 15 road games, despite struggling at home recently. The Devils are 9-3-1 since the All-Star break overall. Due to the Flyers and Penguins both winning their games over the weekend, the Devils fell to 6th in the Eastern Conference, but remain three points back of 4th place.
Carrying the weight:
Martin Brodeur saw his work load reduced at the beginning of the season, which was also partially due to minor injuries, but he’s carried most of the load recently. Brodeur started Friday, as well as yesterday, and he starts again tonight at MSG. This will be the first time Brodeur has started back-to-back games all season. He’s three wins shy of 650 for his career, which would obviously be a new record, as he’s already the all-time wins leader.
The Devils have limited the opposition’s chances in recent games. Brodeur only made 14 saves on Friday and 16 on Sunday. Brodeur allowed 4 goals on Sunday, which was the first time he had given up more than 3 in a game since January 4th against the Boston Bruins, when he gave up 6 goals. It was only the second time Brodeur gave up more than 3 goals in a game since November 30th, 2011.
The Devils are proving to be a very deep team this season. They have three solid lines that can match up against most opposing lines and three lines that can produce offense at any given time. Consider their third line right now (nicknamed “The Momentum Line” by Pete DeBoer and the “600-pound line” by Alexei Ponikarovsky): Ponikarovsky-Dainius Zubrus-Steve Bernier. Although Bernier only has 4 points with the Devils, including the primary assist on Petr Sykora’s goal on Sunday, he’s helped the third line become a dominating puck possession line. Zubrus has also recorded 12 points in the 13 games since the break. Ponikarovsky has put up 5 goals and 6 assists in 15 games as a Devil. That depth scoring has carried the Devils, as their top line has cooled off recently.
Although he continues to log assists, Ilya Kovalchuk has gone five straight games without a goal, following his first hat trick as a Devil. He hasn’t scored a goal on his last 23 shots. Zach Parise, who had plenty of scoring chances against Tampa Bay on Sunday, did connect with the final shot he took. He hadn’t scored on his past 20 shots. Parise and Kovalchuk’s center, Adam Henrique, has hit a bit of a wall over his last couple games, going pointless and taking a minus-2 rating over the last two games. Meanwhile, Patrik Elias has also cooled off. He hasn’t scored a goal in seven games. His 58 points are second on the team to Kovalchuk’s 60. Petr Sykora has gotten back on track, recording seven points in his last eight games.
The Rangers continue to lead the Eastern Conference, yet much of the past few weeks have featured some significant trade rumors surrounding the Rangers. The most prominent name linked to New York has been Columbus captain Rick Nash. Ranger fans infamously mocked Nash after he scored a goal to tie the Blue Jackets-Rangers game in the dying seconds, chanting “We don’t want you.” Well, by the time this preview is up, the trade deadline will have passed, and barring something very dramatic, Nash won’t be traded to the Rangers.
Marian Gaborik leads the Rangers in goals (29) and points (53) this season. His goal production has cooled off over the past few weeks. At one point in December, he was tied with Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goals, but Stamkos now has 43, which is 14 more than Gaborik’s 29. The Rangers have also gotten plenty of offensive support from their defensemen, as Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi all have 20 points or more this season (in comparison, the Devils’ highest scoring defenseman, Adam Larsson, has 16 points this season).
The Devils rank 12th in goals for, while the Rangers are right behind in 14th. The difference is, while the Devils rank 12th in goals against, the Rangers are the best defensive team in hockey, thanks to the previously mentioned defensemen plus Marc Staal, and perhaps the best goaltender on the planet right now: Henrik Lundqvist. It seems almost factual that Lundqvist will be this year’s Vezina winner. The Devils will have their hands full, as always, trying to beat him.
New Jersey Devils’ projected lineup (barring a last minute trade):
Parise – Henrique – Kovalchuk
Sykora – Elias – Clarkson
Ponikarovsky – Zubrus – Bernier
Carter – Josefson – Boulton
Salvador – Larsson
Greene – Fayne
Volchenkov – Zidlicky
New York Rangers’ projected lineup:
Anisimov – Stepan – Gaborik
Hagelin – Richards – Callahan
Dubinsky – Boyle – Prust
Fedotenko – Mitchell – Rupp
McDonagh – Girardi
Del Zotto – Stralman
Staal – Bickell