Good Eating in Hell’s Kitchen
I planned on writing a Devils-Flyers preview, but final papers/examinations got in the way. The past two weeks I have spent every waking minute of free time with my face in a book. A word to the wise: DO NOT put off research papers to the last night. But perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, I was planning on picking the Flyers in 5 or 6 games. Wait, why did I just admit that?
My train of thought was justifiable at the time. Philadelphia had just embarrassed a team that many believed to be the Stanley Cup favorites in the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Devils had barely managed to escape the Florida Panthers, a team that left the ice more often as losers than winners during the regular season (26 regulation losses + 18 OT losses versus just 38 wins). The Flyers scored at will against Pittsburgh, and neither New Jersey’s defense nor Martin Brodeur looked particularly sharp in the first round. The Flyers had a week to rest while the Devils had just one day, and were coming off of consecutive overtime games. Not to mention home ice advantage, Philly’s physical play, and the result the last time these two teams met in the playoffs.
That was the first round of the 2010 playoffs, when the Flyers made quick work of the Devils in 5 games. The only game the Devils won was in overtime. Sound familiar?
The tables were indeed turned this year. New Jersey dismantled their turnpike rivals, outplaying them in every single game. Like the Devils in 2010 these Flyers managed to steal a game in OT- game 1- before simply being overpowered the rest of the way. The last 4 games of the series New Jersey recorded 41 more shots on goal than Philadelphia. Most impressive was the Devil’s relentless forecheck. They displayed an aggression level that the Flyers had no answer for. These descriptions are not typical of the New Jersey Devils we have been accustomed to in recent memory. Conservative, defense-oriented, and even boring are more applicable terms of the past. But the current style of play comes as advertised with the hiring of head coach Pete DeBoer and the advent of his system this season. He has taken the reigns off of his forwards and that has shown a depth many Devils fans did not know their team had. So long neutral zone trap, hello unbutton your chinstrap.
And now they finally know their opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Rangers vs. Devils has all the intrigue, sex appeal, and storylines a hockey fan could ask for. Two teams separated by a mere 15 miles of Jersey swampland. Two teams who overtly do not like each other. They split the season series 3-3, but what is immeasurable is who lost more blood. Don’t expect to see three fights off of the opening faceoff Monday night, but this is going to be a long and chippy series.
If you think about it the Rangers are playing a brand of hockey similar to that of the old Devils; a team that is low-scoring but stout defensively, backed behind stellar goaltending. Meanwhile the Devils have scored at least three goals in seven straight games. The eighteen goals New Jersey had against Philadelphia were scored by eleven different players, displaying scoring balance that is absolutely necessary for a Stanley Cup contender.
Pete DeBoer decided to separate stars Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, the former working primarily with David Clarkson and Patrik Elias, and the latter with a resurfaced Travis Zajac and Alexei Ponikarovski. When I first saw Ponikarovsky inside the top-6 I questioned Deboer’s thinking, but it made a lot of sense after the big Ukrainian scored the overtime winner in game 3 against the Flyers. Contributions from Stephen Gionta, Tim Stestito, and Steve Bernier have come out of nowhere. The Devil’s head coach is getting the most out of his players with these masterful line combinations.
Throw the Florida series out the window, chalk it up the first-round jitters. It would be useless for the Rangers to study that tape. Against Philadelphia the Devils reestablished their record setting penalty kill (PHI went 3-19 on the PP) and witnessed Marty become Marty again. The all-time wins leader sharpened up with a 2.05 GAA against the Flyers.
Brodeur has played in 37 playoff series in his career, while the other three remaining goalies combined have appeared in just 16. Sure, neither Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Smith, or Jonathan Quick are within ten years of Marty’s ripe old age of 40. But, and excuse the cliché, you can’t teach experience. Brodeur is the guy with 3 Cups and 3 Vezinas, while his counterpart Lundqvist has never been to a Conference final. Not that I expect Lundqvist to choke, but I have a feeling which goaltender is sleeping better at night.
The key to this series will be whether New Jersey is able to bring the same forecheck they used to manhandle Philadelphia with them to Madison Square Garden. And unfortunately I don’t think the 6-day layoff will help in that regard. The chemistry of the offensive zone cycle is entirely an intangible entity, and it would have been better for the Devils to keep riding the momentum. A silver lining, and this is some shiny silver we are talking about here, is that the Devils will be well rested and should have the better legs Monday night. While across the river both of the Rangers’ series have gone the full seven games and the Blueshirts will have just one day to rest, and prepare, for New Jersey.
Cam Janssen will not be in the starting faceoff circle tomorrow night- he may not even be in the building. John Tortorella and Pete DeBoer won’t be going goon-for-goon in this series. What will decide this contest is what typically decides evenly matched hockey, the little things. Will the Rangers block a Kovalchuk slapshot when they are up a goal with two minutes to play? Will the Devils pressure Henrik Lundqvist to play the puck and commit a costly turnover? Which team will remain the more disciplined side in a series when emotions are sky high? The answers to these types of question will produce a winner.
Finals are over, no backing out of a prediction this time. The intensity in this series will be a marketing dream come true for Gary Betman, except for the final result. The Rangers’ legs will fade late, Brodeur will smell a 4th cup, and New Jersey’s stars outplay New York’s.
Devils in 6.