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Old-time hockey for Rangers, Devils

Hockey Primetime Steve Wozniak
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The New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils will renew the Hudson River rivalry Monday night, starting in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Although the Rangers were expected to be here, the Devils certainly weren't. So what happens in the reunion of these Atlantic Division rivals in these playoffs?

Season series

The division rivals split their six regular-season matchups, with each team winning twice on its home ice and once on the road. New York outscored New Jersey 14-11, with the Devils getting an extra “goal” for winning the shootout on Jan. 31.

Key players

A winner of the Conn Smythe trophy when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004, Brad Richards is making a case to win another with the Rangers this season. His six goals and 11 points lead the team, though his 49.5 percent success rate in the faceoff circle is slightly worrisome. In fact, of all the regular faceoff men the blueshirts employ, only fourth-line man John Mitchell is winning more than half his draws.

Many will spin positives out of the Rangers’ scoring-by-committee approach — after all, nine different Rangers have scored at least two playoff goals — but that only distracts from the skepticism that should be surrounding the not-scoring committee. Regular-season surprise Carl Hagelin, two-time Stanley Cup winner Ruslan Fedotenko, defenseman Ryan McDonagh and fourth-liners Mike Rupp and Mitchell are all still looking for their first tally.

The Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk leads all active playoff scorers with 12 points, yet is the only member of New Jersey with a negative plus/minus rating (minus-3) this postseason. It’s no surprise he’s joined at the top of the scoring lists by Travis Zajac (five goals, five assists, 10 points) and Zach Parise (4-4-8); what is surprising, or has been surprising, is the offensive contributions from wingers David Clarkson (2-6-8) and Dainius Zubrus (3-4-7).

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We do realize that playing against Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov lately has led to a lot of stat-padding, but New Jersey still has an impressive nine players with shooting percentages higher than 10 percent. Zajac’s five goals have come on just 28 shots for a 17.9-percent rate.

Goaltenders

When you look at the two goalies left standing in the Eastern Conference, you begin to wonder why more people didn’t have these two teams meeting in the third round of these playoffs.

Vezina Trophy favorite and Hart Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist has been as advertised for the Rangers in the playoffs, pulling out wins in two tough Game 7s, though his 1.68 goals-against average and .937 save percentage almost bely his 8-6 record this postseason. King Henrik has been outstanding; his offensive support has been almost non-existent.

On the other side of the ice will be future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, who, along with forward Patrik Elias, constitute the only two remaining members of New Jersey’s Cup-winning 2003 team still wearing the black and red. Brodeur recently turned 40 years old, but has shown little signs of slowing down. His 2.05 GAA and .920 save percentage may pale next to Lundqvist’s otherworldly numbers, but are the best postseason stats he’s put up since registering a 1.65 GAA and .934 percentage in that 2003 title spring.

What to expect

After a month of craziness, these two teams bring back good old-fashioned playoff hockey. The Rangers got a good taste of it against the surprisingly-resilient Capitals in Round 2, and the Devils tried their hardest to recapture it while taming a wildly erratic Flyers team. But as sad as it is to say, with all the offensive stars sitting out this round, these two teams will have the opportunity to grind out some victories with a combination of stout defense, lucky bounces, and some hard-nosed crease play by third- and fourth-line role players.

New York’s Fedotenko and Hagelin can’t continue to go scoreless. Kovalchuk may go scoreless when he sees the Rangers’ top defensive matchups at Madison Square Garden; that leaves the door open for guys like Adam Henrique to step up and be the hero, or for Alexei Ponikarovsky — in danger this offseason of setting the NHL record for being traded or dumped by the most teams in a career — to come through with another clutch game-winner.

Bottom line? Expect a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games. Expect an empty net at one end of the ice in the final minute of each game. Expect a lot of shot-blocking and puck battles, with a mild physical flavor to those battles. In essence, expect a repeat of the Capitals-Rangers series, where New Jersey breathes a sigh of relief that it no longer has to suffer the goonery of a frustrated Philadelphia squad.

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X-Factor

Who’s going to be more special? New Jersey had the top penalty kill in the league during the regular season, denying opponents 89.6 percent of the time. But in the first round, the Devils killed only 66.7 percent of Florida’s power-play chances, and didn’t fare much better against Philadelphia’s lethal man-advantage. Their playoff composite of 73.9 percent is by far the worst penalty-killing team remaining, but their power play, converting at a 20.9-percent clip, is by far the best among the remaining four teams.

New York’s power play was atrocious in the regular season at 15.7 percent success, and has been just a tick less horrific in the playoffs, finding the net 15.8 percent of the time. Its penalty kill, which finished fifth in the regular season with a respectable 86.2-percent success rate, has avoided a goal only 82.6 percent of the time.

The Rangers’ ability to figure out the Devils when they’re not playing five on five may be the axis on which this series turns.

Prediction

New Jersey in seven. The Rangers couldn’t score much against a journeyman like Ottawa’s Craig Anderson or an emergency AHL call-up like Braden Holtby. They won’t suddenly find that spark playing against a living legend in the crease and an underrated blueline corps in front of him.

Tagged: Devils, Rangers, Flyers, Capitals, Ilya Bryzgalov, Henrik Lundqvist, Ilya Kovalchuk

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