The Rangers’ advantages on the bench, at the blueline and in goal will propel them to the Stanley Cup Finals
It wasn’t easy in the first two rounds. Only the No. 8 seed next to the Ottawa Senators’ name in the playoff bracket would make you think they weren’t capable of giving the Rangers a series. The Sens came hard, and the Rangers skated away with a gritty seventh game win at the Garden. The second round was a matchup with the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals, a new look team with a defensive mindset that didn’t exactly match up with their personnel. Still, the Capitals brought the Rangers to another decisive seventh game, which the Blueshirts would skate away with on their home ice. No, it certainly wasn’t a breeze getting through the first two rounds.
Critics point to the historical trend that teams which play fourteen games in their first two playoff series have never gone on to win a cup. I’d ask how many of those teams had major injuries in those series. Other than a leg injury sustained by Brandon Dubinsky, one that the hardnosed shot blocking forward hasn’t been cleared to skate with, there haven’t been much more than some bruises and nicks. I’d also add that Ottawa and Washington were deceptively seeded low. The Penguins and the Flyers were staggering to the finish line while the Capitals played their best hockey late just to make the playoff dance. The idea that playing fourteen games as opposed to thirteen or ten would make a team less ready to compete doesn’t make all that much sense when the team hasn’t sustained an injury or played outrageously poorly (and neither seem to be the case).
Now to the Eastern Conference Finals matchup. Think about this from a logical perspective. Coaching? Rangers. Goaltending? Rangers. Forwards? Devils. Defense? Rangers. Special Teams? Even. Season series? Rangers. That’s a lot of Rangers.
Don’t get me wrong, Pete DeBoer has done good things, even a few miraculous things. Did you ever see Ilya Kovalchuk block a shot or focus on back-checking in Atlanta? Me neither. Somehow, the message that DeBoer is sending is getting through to one of the most talented players in the league, and it’s paying dividends. But this is the same coach that led the Panthers to the cellar and has only coached in the playoffs once in his four year NHL coaching career. Compare that to the coaching of John Tortorella. Under that gruff exterior… is a gruff interior. And his players embody that. It’s not much of a stretch to call the Rangers overachievers in some aspects, and a lot of that has to do with their coach, who has almost 11 seasons of coaching experience. The edge has to go to the coach who has an above .500 career coaching record.
The goaltending matchup is trickier because of the legend that is Martin Brodeur. Yes, he is a first ballot Hall of Famer and a big game performer. Of course, he’s also forty years old, and his skills aren’t quite what they used to be. His 107 playoff wins are impressive, as is his 2.01 career GAA in the postseason. Still, both Henrik Lundqvist and Brodeur have allowed the exact same number of goals this postseason. The difference is that the Rangers netminder has seen an additional 82 pucks. Lundqvist’s time appears to be now, as the perennial Vezina Trophy candidate has carried his incredible regular season play into the postseason.
The forwards may be a spot where the Devils have an advantage, in my opinion. The Devils have top shelf talent in players like Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as a great long term producer in Travis Zajac and a great young gun in Adam Henrique. More importantly I like their overall depth. I just named half of the starters, and that’s a pretty solid lineup. Dainius Zubrus has seven points this postseason, while David Clarkson has eight of his own. The fourth line is a bit lackluster, but they aren’t there to score. New York counters with the league’s remaining leading goal scorer in the playoffs, Brad Richards. Carl Hagelin hasn’t done much in the postseason, but he typically plays well against the Devils (as I will point out later), and Chris Kreider is starting to get his legs under him. Ryan Callahan has played well and Derek Stepan has eight points. In the end, the two main scorers for the Rangers, Richards and Marian Gaborik, will need to continue to score (they hold the top spots in points and goals so far in the playoffs). That said, the Devils have the talent, but their system isn’t made to score five goals a game.
Defensively there is no reason to believe the Rangers aren’t the better side. Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Anton Strallman, Michael Del Zotto and Stu Bickel might be the most talented defensive corps top-to-bottom remaining in the playoffs. Girardi and McDonagh average nearly 27:30 of ice time each per game, while Staal and Del Zotto average over 22:50 each so far in the postseason. Marek Zidlicky, who should play but was injured against Philadelphia, Andy Greene, Bryce Calvadoor and Mark Fayne get the big minutes for New Jersey while Adam Larsson, Anton Volchenkov and Peter Harrold take up the remaining time on the blueline. The offensive production is almost nonexistent from these guys, and their defense, while good, isn’t really enough to make their non-production in the offensive zone a non-factor.
On the power play it has been the Kovalchuk show for New Jersey. The sharp shooting winger has three goals, tops in the playoffs, with the man advantage. Elias has a pair of his own, while no one else has managed more than one man-up goal. Of the four teams left, the Devils’ 20.9% power play conversion rate is the best, while New York trails five percentage points back in second. The Rangers aren’t a power play power house, but with Richards, Callahan and Stralman each scoring two PP goals, and Marian Gaborik still goalless on the power play, I think it can only go up. Flip the script and think about the penalty kill. The Rangers are third of the remaining four teams in penalty kill at 82.6%. New Jersey has been downright atrocious though, to the tone of a 73.9% kill rate.
The results this year are on the New York side of the Hudson River. The Rangers took the season series, 4-2-0. Despite being outshot by the Devils by 25 in the regular season, the Rangers outscored their cross Hudson rivals by 8 tallies in those six games. It’s worth noting that the Rangers are 2-1-0 in both Manhattan and Newark during the regular season when playing New Jersey. It’s also worth noting that Carl Hagelin might be an exorcist, leading the league in scoring against New Jersey during the regular season with two goals and seven assists. Derek Stepan has two goals and four assists of his own against New Jersey.
I will leave you with one interesting statistic that could sway the series. The Devils lead the playoffs (all sixteen teams) in five-on-five goal ratio, scoring 1.85 goals per goal allowed when both teams are even strength (next closest is Los Angeles at 1.46). If the Rangers want to win, they’ll need to turn that statistic and play smart when they are playing even strength, and take advantage of the power play chances that they get.
Prediction: Rangers in 6.