Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Game Preview: Battle Of Hudson Part I

Tonight is the first installment of the Battle Of Hudson with the Manhattan meeting Jersey as the Rangers visit the Devils at The Rock with faceoff in less than an hour. It only took nearly three months for these bitter rivals to finally meet for the first of six in another fun season where both clubs are jockeying for position. Post-lockout, the Blueshirts' improvement has made this a more entertaining match-up. Both clubs have seen the postseason five of six years since with the Rangers missing in '09-10 while the Devils failed to qualify for the first time since '95-96 last year.

The Rangers currently sit third in a crowded Patrick that has the Flyers and Pens just ahead while the Devils have used a four-game win streak to creep within three of the Broadway Blues. It's New Jersey who should have an edge thanks to the reemergence of captain Zach Parise. Parise is sizzling hot with eight points (3-5-8) over his last four since missing a penalty shot in a loss to the Habs. Exactly the kind of response you'd expect from the Devil leader. Along with Calder hopeful Adam Henrique and Ilya Kovalchuk, he'll have to shoulder the load with leading scorer Patrik Elias (13-16-29) out due to the flu. In a recent win, Elias surpassed John MacLean to become the Devils' all-time leading finisher with 348 goals. His club record 845 points (348-497-845) over 993 games all with the black and red are impressive. He needs three assists for 500 and seven more games for 1,000.

New Jersey has also gotten inspired play out of David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus and Elias' Czech pal Petr Sykora. That Sykora factored into Elias' record-breaker was ironic, invoking memories of Cup lore. Without Elias, Pete DeBoer will move Travis Zajac up to center the second line with Zubrus and Clarkson. It's just Zajac's third game back. The Rangers will have their work cut out for them with the dangerous top line that includes Devil second third round pick Henrique. The kid is legit placing second in rookie scoring behind leader Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with 25 points. More notable is Henrique's overall play with a dangerous penalty killer a shorthanded threat with two SHG while Parise paces the club with three. Henrique also leads the Devils with a plus-seven rating.

Martin Brodeur will oppose Henrik Lundqvist in a classic showdown between the two franchise goalies. Even if he's not what he once was, the 39-year old Brodeur is capable of making the highlight reel save and enjoys playing our team. You know he'll be up for this one. With Johan Hedberg splitting duty with MB30, it truly is an all-time great's career that could be coming to a close. But as the controversial all-time winningest goalie with the most shutouts (116) noted, it will be his decision when his contract expires this summer. Brodeur recently had some choice comments about the HBO documentary series 24/7 covering the Winter Classic for a second consecutive year with bitter foes the Rangers and Flyers set to do battle at Citizens Bank Park on January 2 in the City Of Brotherly Love. Never one to shy away from an opinion, Marty doesn't care for the F bombs that will continue to air for three more weeks every Wednesday, including following the signature event.

While he's got a point, it doesn't air till 10 in the evening and kids shouldn't be allowed to watch. It's an A-Plus for the sport, which Brodeur made sure to point out. Sometimes, I wonder if he just ran his mouth because it's our team involved. He hates us and usually times his comments. While not as ornery as his idol Patrick Roy, Marty is becoming more and more like him. Chalk it up to not having the spotlight. Something he's always coveted. I do agree the Devils deserve the game. Perhaps they should get it and play their emerging rival the Islanders, who also could use a boost. I wonder if the league would allow essentially the same market to split the game.

While Brodeur makes headlines, the Rangers have done their talking with their play, which has leveled off since a great November. After beginning December with two wins, they're 3-3-1 since with injuries starting to mount. The loss of Mike Sauer, who isn't close to returning from a concussion, along with Steve Eminger separating his shoulder and being sidelined eight to ten weeks has turned the blueline into shambles. While Marc Staal awaits word for physical contact, John Tortorella will lean heavily on Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Mike Del Zotto. Lately, it's been the strong play of Del Zotto that's keeping them afloat. After an inconsistent start, MDZ has regained the confidence he had in Year One when he was an offensive threat. Even better, he's playing more physical in his end and logging big minutes. Tort now trusts him and MDZ is teaming with emerging Derek Stepan to run the power play. While a bit risky, it's not doing badly. The problem is still consistency with some PP's abysmal while others click. You never know what to expect.

Brad Richards has been everything advertised. His last second goal to stun Phoenix was a brilliant play by a proven winner. That's why you get the shot on net. Richie's 26 points (12-14-26) trail Marian Gaborik by one. Gabby is back with a vengeance, pacing the Blueshirts with 17 goals and 27 points. His two goals in a come from behind win over the 'Yotes was clutch. No question he is 100 percent, taking the body much more and putting forth an extra effort each shift. Ryan Callahan has been a leader with 12 goals (5 PPG, 3 GW) and over 100 hits. D-Step has emerged with 21 points and some heady play that reminds of a more skilled Drury. Artem Anisimov should be in after missing Saturday with the flu. It's the play of the top line (Anisimov-Stepan-Gaborik) that the Devils must focus on while Richards anchors Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky, who picked up a big helper in the victory Saturday. Will he ever score again? He usually fares well versus the Devs.

The back end will use Anton Stralman, Stu Bickel and likely Jeff Woywitka. If he can't go, then Tim Erixon rejoins the lineup. How Tort handles it will be key. Mike Rupp also has a homecoming with the team he played Cup hero for in '03. Wonder what kind of reaction he'll get. Oh wait. He sucks now. :P It should be interesting.

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