Thursday, May 31, 2012

Losing A Legend: Nick Lidstrom Retires

After 19 spectacular seasons, Red Wings great Nicklas Lidstrom called it quits earlier today at a press conference in Detroit. One of the all-time best defensemen leaves behind an impressive Hall Of Fame resume that includes four Stanley Cups and seven Norris Trophies along with Olympic gold.

There are few better than the 42-year old Swede who the Red Wings stole in the third round of the '89 NHL Draft (53rd overall). At the time, taking risks on European players were rare. Yet that's how former GM Jim Devellano built the organization- drafting the likes of Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir KonstantinovTomas Holmstrom and Slava Kozlov to turn Detroit into an NHL powerhouse. They joined one of the league's greatest captains in Steve Yzerman to form the premier team in the NHL. It's no coincidence that they haven't missed the playoffs in 21 years (1991-2012). The longest current streak.

When we look back on Nick Lidstrom, No.5 will take his place among the all-time greats for a storied Original Six franchise. No small feat for a guy who tied Doug Harvey last year for the second most Norrises for league's top defenseman. Only Bobby Orr has more (8). It is pretty amazing when you look at how consistent he's been since entering the league. Almost scary. Even in his final year, the Detroit captain finished with 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points along with a plus-21 rating.

"That didn't sway me one way or another," he said. "A couple weeks after the season is over, you start working out. Once I started doing that, I didn't have the push I need, and I can't cheat myself."

"Retiring today allows me to walk away with pride, rather than have the game walk away from me."

A very commendable statement from a player who understands what greatness is all about. For him to leave the game still on top is as good as it gets. Even if the point total and end result (first round exit) weren't up to his gold standard. If his heart's not in it, then it's the right decision. One that will be difficult for the Wings moving forward. Last year, they lost Brian Rafalski. But for as good as he was, it pales in comparison to losing a legend who played his entire career with one team. There's only one other current player from that Era left who's still trying to write one more chapter.

Sometimes, it really dawns on you when a special player leaves. Lidstrom is a defenseman but deserves the same recognition players at other positions have received. The 264 goals, 878 assists totaling 1,142 points along with a gaudy plus-450 rating  over 1,564 career games tell you just how brilliant Nick was. However, it's not about numbers. Rather about the kind of caliber player he became in helping the Red Wings back to prominence.

It's easy to forget that Detroit had the longest streak without a Cup following the Rangers ending theirs in '94. That's why so many wanted to see them end it in '95 against the Devils. They just weren't ready. New Jersey was more battle tested, which is why it didn't surprise me that they prevailed. Hockey Town would have to wait two more years until their team avenged a crushing loss to Colorado and then swept through the Legion Of Doom for the franchise's first championship since '55. That they are the last repeat champ, also sweeping Washington while paying tribute to Konstantinov ranks as one of the most memorable Cup moments. Them wheeling him around with Lord Stanley will never be forgotten.

Lidstrom and his club weren't done, coming back to beat Carolina in five games for a third Cup over six years in '02. It was the last time they won with Yzerman and Fedorov. Being able to remain competitive when you lose superstars is tough. But thanks to Holland's Euro-invasion that includes Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, new D anchor Nicklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen, the Wings remain on top. Even following the lockout with stiff competition from an improved division, they've maintained the kind of consistency that separates them from the rest.

The Red Wings received their toughest challenge in 2008 when Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins took them to six games. It didn't come easy with Conn Smythe winner Zetterberg's goal holding up despite a tally from Marian Hossa. Lidstrom, who took over the captaincy from Yzerman had finally led the team to the Cup. If memory serves, I believe he became the first European captain to accomplish the feat. For years, critics echoed that a team couldn't win unless it was led by a North American. As we've seen recently also with Zdeno Chara, that no longer is true.

Amazingly, the Wings appeared in their sixth Final with Lidstrom in an '09 Cup rematch. Though Pittsburgh prevailed, the last memory is of Lidstrom with a wide open shot off a draw. Only a sliding Marc-Andre Fleury denied him from forcing sudden death. A lasting image.

Lidstrom leaves us after 20 sensational years. It won't be the same watching Detroit next Fall. But his legend shall live on. Thank you No.5!

Fan psychology and experiencing a SCF game

All throughout the weekend and early this week, the five-day layoff between the end of the Devils' Eastern Conference Final triumph and puck drop of last night's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals didn't feel all that long, at least to me. With all the time I spent re-living the Ranger game (watching highlights and postgame I could see at the game), and then soaking in the hype of this series before Game 1 by reading and listening to stuff online as well as watching a lot of the NHL Network coverage, the five days actually flew by. I can't speak for everyone else, certainly not King fans who probably took a week's vacation in Malibu between series...but that was my mindset going into Game 1.

Conversely, after the Devils lost 2-1 in OT last night and me and my friend got lost around Newark for over a half hour, Game 2 can't come soon enough now. Of course, the NHL being what it is, both teams will now get nearly another three days off before Saturday night - giving us more time to sit and stew over a sloppy Game 1. Although the Kings were the better team, really Game 1 was sloppy from both ends, with each team managing single-digit shot totals in the first two periods (the Kings outshooting us 14-9 after forty minutes is ridiculous). Perhaps the fans paid the price for the NHL trying to max out on pre-series hype AND ensure two Saturday games. Considering the Devils' five days off and the Kings' eight before Game 1, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that neither team looked particularly sharp.

If one thing did annoy me about last night, it's the fact that the Kings' fourth line - previously next to useless in the playoffs - chipped in their first goal when Colin Fraser scored off a one-timer in the first period. Despite the Kings controlling play for much of the first two periods, the Devils had their chances - particularly David Clarkson, who missed two wide-open looks at the net. Finally, they broke through on Johnathan Quick off a fluke goal late in the second period, when an Anton Volchenkov shot bounced off a couple of Kings players and into the net for another (as Derek would put it) 'magic bullet' goal. Honestly, there wasn't much in the way of entertainment in this game though.

It wasn't for lack of trying, but at times both teams' forecheck nulified each other. On the rare occasions when it didn't, both teams got glorious chances in the third period but Martin Brodeur snuffed out a Drew Doughty mini-breakaway, then later in the period Mark Fayne missed a layup open net from mere feet away when a puck hopped over his stick. It looked as if Zach Parise did score at one point, but the goal was correctly ruled out due to a 'handball' by Zach, reminiscent of Scott Gomez's clear kick in Game 6 of 2001 that was a crticial momentum-changer in that series. Even in the OT, both teams tried to get going but chances were few and far between. One promising chance from Ilya Kovalchuk, he inexplicably fired wide when he could have easily either gotten it on net, or toned down the velocity on the shot to make it more deflectable, with a Devil stick lurking in front.

Amazingly, a bad line change led to an overtime breakaway against - for the Kings' best player in Anze Kopitar. And Kopitar would not miss this glorious chance, deking out Brodeur with a forehand to give Devil fans a cold towel after five days of anticipation and celebration. Now, after looking at anything and everything before Game 1 in terms of analysis and team interviews I'm not all that interested in listening to all the between-games hype, the telecast I taped or even looking over a boxscore to do a more in-depth recap of this game. I just want to focus on other things and count down the hours till Saturday night.

I do want to talk a little about the in-game experience though. Having been to three SCF games in 2003, I was anxious to see how it would look in Newark. Seeing the two giant Stanley Cup banners hanging by the jumbotron and the logo painted into the ice drove home the point that this is a big deal. Not to mention the fact section 226 in the upper level was turned into another press area to accomodate some of the approximately 1100+ credentialed reporters covering this series. I didn't realize this ever happened, clearly I wasn't that observant in 2003 since ostensibly seats do get taken out of public use all the time to accomodate the media. Furthermore, the NHL intermission crew set up shop down below near section 15, where the Devils Dancers usually are. And unbeknownst to me until after the game when I saw them outside, the NHL Network crew - including Barry Melrose (booed to the high heavens any time the jumbotron showed the NHL Network's insta-analysis during the game) and Kevin Weekes - were doing their own show outside the arena at Championship Plaza. Amazing how much changes from one series to the next in the postseason.

Before Game 2 I do intend to take in some more of the outside stuff, seeing as me and my friend had to arrive just before the intro video started last night due to a prior commitment. Another little change I noticed in the arena, at least compared to the last SCF was the official Stanley Cup program. In 2003, it was just an extension of the normal Devils' program, only marked up higher price-wise. This year however, it's a huge hardcover program chock-full of info and articles on both teams, only the same price as that program was though ($10). I definitely intend to get one of these babies before the series ends at least, whether this series ends well for the Devils or not. Whether you're an optomist or a pessimist, last night gave you more ammo for either category...but the bottom line is this, the Devils need to win on Saturday. Yes, they can certainly win two games in LA, but would they win two more games here? When the Kings would have a 10-0 road record in the playoffs by then and even more confidence in their road invincibility?

Eventually you would think the Kings finally have to stare down some real adversity before they can win a Stanley Cup. No matter how good a team you are, each team usually has one critical moment in every postseason...but maybe it won't play out that way. This could be just one of those years where nothing goes to form, it hasn't so far after all. What does worry me is last night makes three games in a row the Devils didn't play very well in, other than the first five minutes of Game 5 against the Rangers and the first period of Game 6. Maybe this team is just gassed, given the age and all the injuries throughout the lineup. That's another reason Game 2 is so important. We have the confidence of coming from one down to beat the Flyers and Rangers, but coming from two down against a good team like the Kings is hard, especially with potentially three games in California.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ridding ourselves of media dirt

I begin this post with a thought. One which the hockey community should identify with. Truth be told, our sport is fourth. Sometimes, even behind golf and horse racing. That's why NBC hypes up the triple crown so much.

Ratings are the No.1 reason networks broadcast. As a former employee of ESPN who worked as an NHL researcher when the Total Sports Network gave our game respect, it's understandable why they all but abandoned hockey. They invested ridiculous money into a contract extension that dwarfed anything NBC ever paid. Some media people have false perceptions. Learning the facts would set them straight.

Unfortunately, when we get to this part of the year there are unknowledgable writers covering our sport who don't have the foggiest clue what constitutes winning the Stanley Cup. What you get is uneducated columns like Filip Bondy's repeated attacks on the Rangers for their "boring style." I never realized blocking shots was against league rules. I must've been asleep when Scott Stevens destroyed anyone in his path and blocked a ton of shots to make life easier on Martin Brodeur during the Devils' first three Cups.

Mr. Bondy is what I like to call a cherry picker. A term loosely used on players who only played one-way, forgetting essentials like team defense. Pavel Bure was one of my favorite players but never excelled defensively. He is still probably the most electrifying scorer I've seen, beating out the more well rounded Pavel Datsyuk. The difference is Datsyuk has the more important hardware in Cups. Bure came close on a well rounded Vancouver team in the early part of his career. He was flat out dangerous every shift against us. But I'll bet he'd trade some of those Rocket Richards for a championship. It still is sad the way his career ended. We never got to really say goodbye. In my opinion, Bure should be in the Hockey Hall Of Fame. Hopefully, one day he'll get there despite his injuries and defensive deficiencies.

Getting back to the loathsome case of Mr. Bondy. He's had a cushy job as a columnist with the New York Daily News, covering whatever he chooses or so it appears. Come to think of it, there's an even more annoying character there known as Mike Lupica who won't even give hockey the time of day and blindly defended his co-worker despite assinine questions to John Tortorella regarding how our team plays. This is the norm, where snakes like Bondy and Lupica sit on their asses without really comprehending the sport.

Ask the Devils if team defense has been part of their great run to a fifth Stanley Cup Finals appearance with that series against the Kings commencing tonight in Newark. Have either Bondy or Lupica ever heard of Larry Robinson? Maybe in passing with the former '00 Devil coach taking over for Robbie Ftorek to win Lord Stanley. Something Pete DeBoer's LA counterpart Darryl Sutter is attempting to do. Robinson is one of the greatest defensemen to ever play the game, amassing 208 goals and 750 assists for a total of 958 points for the Canadiens and Kings over an 20-year career. He helped lead those great Montreal teams to six Cups and finished with the all-time best plus/minus rating of +730.

It's no secret that the man referred to as Big Bird has also been an integral part of Devils' past, helping turn Stevens into one of the greatest defenders the sport's seen while making others into quality players. If you looked at the current '11-12 roster, the guys on a blueline that's been labeled no-name have been better than the sum of its parts. Savvy vet Bryce Salvador exemplifies that by leading with a superb postseason offensively and defensively. One could make the argument that he's been their most consistent player with enough points to be up for the Conn Smythe. That's playoff MVP for the two knuckleheads at The News.

The rest of the list includes offensive minded Marek Zidlicky, understated Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, shot blocking extraordinaire Anton Volchenkov and former King Peter Harrold. Hardly what you'd call championship caliber. But under the tutelage of Robinson, here they are just four wins away from what would be the franchise's defining moment. Toss the other three Cups aside. If the Devils are able to pull this off, it would be their greatest achievment. They've already shown playoff mettle in rallying past Florida, handling the Flyers and outlasting the Rangers. Without the all-time great helping out DeBoer, who's done a fine job in his own right, they're not here. And did we mention that Volchenkov blocks shots? I guess Mr. Bondy hasn't been paying attention.

In another stunning revelation at least for the two clowns, here are the blocked shots breakdown for Games 5 and 6 which the Devils won:

                        Devils     Rangers   
Game 5  16           17
Game 6  15            8

Totals             31           25

Shocking. You mean to tell me the Devils needed to play some rugged D to pull out the Battle Of Hudson. Even in Game One where Brodeur made his off color remark, his team blocked 15 to our 26. Team defense is vital to any playoff success. Just ask the Flyers and Pens. You can't get this far without sacrificing for the good of your teammates. Everyone's laying it on the line. That's why it's hockey where players are tougher than almost every other sport. They're playing with broken bones, parts, etc. That's why Tortorella didn't use the "tired" excuse following his team's exit. It would be unfair to New Jersey.

To win the greatest trophy in all of sports, you have to be able to play in all three ends. That includes the neutral zone, which probably is another foreign concept to Mr. Bondy, who probably didn't care for the Devils' old style that helped them win.

I'm not going to dispute that good offenses aren't exciting. Under DeBoer, these Devs play more aggressively, pressing the attack. It's not all that different from our team in '94. But in order to play this way, you have to be fully committed taking risks. If an opponent is able to execute short passes and work the puck past their pinching D, they're screwed. Los Angeles is a more skilled opponent than they've faced, who also can play in their end. It should be an intriguing match-up. Both teams come at you with size, speed and strength. It could come down to whichever goalie cracks first. Or simply put, which team can dictate in the trenches.

The Devils wore the Rangers down. Still, they were right there the final two games, showing the kind of resilience that defined them. I guess Mr. Bondy doesn't care for that either. Objective. He might want to look it up.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thank you New York Rangers

I still don't know what to write. It's been a few days since the Rangers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup chase. Of course, it's still agonizingly fresh in my mind. As much as it hurts, I want to congratulate the Devils on a great series. They were the better team. There's nothing wrong with admitting that. Especially given how resilient our club was, forcing them to win the last two games.

I will stand by what I said. Game Five was one of the greatest playoff experiences of my life. Sure. It ended with spiked kool aid poisoning every Blueshirt. But the way the Rangers fought is what made it worthwhile. That's the team we cheered for all season. The same one that caused a scare into Devil hearts when it rallied from a two-goal deficit in Game Six on the 18-Year Anniversary. Seeing Ryan McDonagh beat Ilya Kovalchuk and then spin around like Brian Leetch behind the net to set up Ruslan Fedotenko was enjoyable. Of course, Ryan Callahan came through with another gritty goal off the leg to tie it four and a half minutes later. That's what you expect from your leader.

Maybe it didn't turn out the way we wanted. But seeing our team take it to the Devils for the rest of regulation instilled pride. Brad Richards will have nightmares of Martin Brodeur stacking the pads with the whole top of the net gaping. Unfortunately, our leading scorer had a series to forget with it cruelly ending when he couldn't tuck a loose puck under Henrik Lundqvist. Adam Henrique scored perhaps the easiest goal you could score unless you saw Marian Gaborik's gaffe last year.

Sometimes, that's hockey. You don't always get the bounces. The Devils simple strategy worked. Throw pucks at the net and get traffic. Even if there was that Magic Bullet Theory goal Patrik Elias scored in Game Five. That play was also made by Henrique who shot. Maybe if our team had stopped overpassing, it would be them getting ready to play the "overhyped" Kings for Lord Stanley. A series that starts tomorrow and one I refuse to watch. I just can't do it. My Devil pal Andy asked how I could not and I replied "We just lost to you. I don't want to be reminded of hockey until October."

So, I'll sit this one out. The first Cup I won't see since I can't remember. Now, I know what Hasan meant after that excruciating loss to Carolina. There are times where your heart just sinks. For me, that moment came at 1:03 of sudden death when our guys turned a loose puck into a fire drill. If only Brandon Dubinsky had found a way to beat Brodeur some thirty seconds earlier. But like John Tortorella said to Stan Fischler about what's fair and unfair, "That's hockey."
There's an old Rolling Stone song that kind of applies to the '11-12 New York Rangers. "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Unfortunately, the get what you need part ain't working. I loved how our players handled such a bitter defeat. With class. They recognized the great season they had but also drove home the point that reaching the third round isn't enough. This organization won't be satisfied until the franchise wins its fifth Stanley Cup. A refreshing change from what Dolan sells with the Knicks. And one I've been driving home forever.

A lot of Devil fans rejoiced extra because it exorcised '94 demons. I get it. Some of our fans have given them crap over the years. And the '06 sweep wasn't a fair fight. This was the best way to get revenge. The sad part is most Ranger fans didn't care about 18 years ago or the silly anniversaries. The reason being is that 1994 has become annoying. I've hated it for a while. And now, maybe finally we won't have to hear about it from nonsensical New York columnists who know nothing about hockey. You can't live off a memory. That's what I love about this team. They want to create their own history.

It didn't happen this year. But if we've learned anything from the '95 Devils, it's that if at first you don't succeed, you can always dust yourself off and try again. Or the infamous lyrics of Aaliyah. Another one of my favorites. That Devil team lost in an even worse way possible. I'll save the details except to point out that how the Rangers lost was a little similar.

In the end, the bad starts killed us. You can't get outscored 8-1 in first periods and expect to win. It's hard to come back. Especially against a very good team like the Devils. And well, you saw our offense. Somehow, they scored one less goal despite zilch from the top line and Derek Stepan. Outside of Marian Gaborik's miracle, our top four weren't a factor. The Devils got contributions from everyone. It wasn't only Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, David Clarkson or Henrique. To be blunt, New Jersey doesn't win that series without the fourth line of Steve "Embellisher" Bernier, Stephen Gionta or Ryan Carter. They were fantastic. It was their goal that turned around Game Two and their heroics that doomed us in the final game played at MSG. And Carter got the Devs off to the right start in the clincher.

When it's their supporting cast along with leading Conn Smythe candidate Bryce Salvador, it tells you how hard it is to win. Everyone must contribute. Our fourth line wasn't good enough. Once Brian Boyle got hurt, he wasn't the same. Mike Rupp shouldn't be asked to play every game. That must change moving forward along with Tortorella's reliance on the top four on the back end. These are holes Glen Sather needs to address along with another scorer. Though I'd rather not contemplate that.

At the beginning of the year, many experts thought our team would finish between fourth and eighth. That's where I had them. But I probably was one of the few who took them to the Conference Finals. Go figure. I just never envisioned that it would be against our No.1 rival. That's why it hurts so much. It should. I hope our players remember how close they were. That despite the Devils controlling 12 of 19 periods, the latest Battle Of Hudson was winnable. They must use it as motivation for '12-13. A year that I believe can be special.

For the final time, thank you Rangers for a great season. I still Believe. Let's Go Rangers Let's Go Rangers Let's Go Rangers

Monday, May 28, 2012

Devils-Kings Stanley Cup Final preview

After basking in the glow of one of the Devils' most memorable triumphs ever, beating out the hated Rangers to win the Eastern Conference Finals in overtime of Game 6 at the Prudential Center, I'm finally ready to look ahead to what will be a Cinderella Finals. Make no mistake about it, both teams are better than their #6 and #8 seeds respectively, even if one of them will become the lowest seed ever to win a title. In our case, we had a 102-point season and finished fourth in a brutal Atlantic Division, yet wound up beating our two biggest division rivals to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals (after splitting with each during the regular season). With the Kings, they've been strong defensively in net all year with Johnathan Quick having a Vezina-caliber season, but an underachieving offense had them on the playoff bubble until mid-season coaching replacement Darryl Sutter calmed the waters and late-season acquisition Jeff Carter fortified the offense. I don't remember the exact record, but the Kings are something like 25-9-3 since acquiring the one-time Flyer star close to the deadline, including an insane 12-2 playoff record - with the Kings' only two defeats coming after they'd taken a 3-0 lead against Vancouver and Phoenix.

Through the playoffs, the Kings have an insane goals-against average of 1.57 in fourteen games, while the Devils come in at a reasonable 2.33. Offensively the Kings have scored 41 goals in 14 games, while the Devils have put home 51 in 18, as both offenses have pushed the pace during the postseason. Special teams have been a lot better for LA in the postseason than us, despite having a sub-10% power play (8.1%), the Kings' PK is operating at over 90% efficiency (91.2%) with a handful of shorthanded goals, to boot. Our power play is at a respectable 18.2% but we've killed off just 74.2% of penalties in the postseason, with none of the shorthanded goals that made our regular-season PK such a menace. And while we navigated a tough road to get to the Finals with our share of turbulence, the Kings rolled through President's Trophy winner Vancouver, second-seed St. Louis and third-seed Phoenix with ease.

In goal, once again you have a hungry goalie looking to make his mark among the elite of the league in Quick, and the old warhorse in Martin Brodeur - who put up his best playoff series in seven years turning aside one of the two leading Vezina candidates in Henrik Lundqvist ...and will now have to outduel the other one in this round to win his fourth Stanley Cup. Unlike Lundqvist however, Quick is more of a reflex goalie, giving us a different kind of a challenge in this round. Plus, we were more familiar with Lundqvist having played him six or more times every season for the last several years, as opposed to Quick who we've only seen once this year - way back in the third game of the season where the Devils beat the Kings 3-2 in a shootout. We did play the Kings again in October but backups Johan Hedberg and Johnathan Bernier were both in net for an impressive 3-0 Devils win out in LA. We'll have to succeed where three teams have already failed, finding a way to put goals past the Conn Smythe favorite.

Offensively the Kings have two deadly lines with the best player that nobody pays attention to in pivot Anze Kopitar, hard-nosed captain Dustin Brown and Cup-winning vet Justin Williams (from the Canes in '06) on one line, and former Flyer buddies and leaders Carter and Mike Richards heading up their other big line with Dustin Penner - finally living up to his talent in this postseason. Admittedly, I know very little about the Kings' other two lines other than the fact they have ex-Oiler Jarret Stoll and faceoff specialist Brad Richardson giving LA depth down the middle, and rookie Dwight King's also given them some big goals in the postseason. Ironically, Devils coach Pete DeBoer scratched our own rookie pivot Adam Henrique and told him to watch Richardson play when we were in LA for that early-season matchup. LA may also get another former Flyer - injury-prone Simon Gagne - back for this series, which would help them but I'll believe it when I see it.

While most of the Kings' offense has come from the top six and King, the Devils have exhibited amazing depth in this postseason, getting multiple goals from eleven forwards (and defenseman Bryce Salvador). Yes, top-line forwards Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac all have seven goals, tied for the team lead in the postseason. However, role players like Henrique - and his two series-clinching goals - and David Clarkson are right behind them in points. All-time Devils leading scorer Patrik Elias has had a down postseason after a couple of early goals against Florida, but with a five-day break between the Conference Finals and Game 1, hopefully he finds his second wind against LA. And you can't overstate Danius Zubrus's contribution despite the fact he only has three goals in the postseason, he's set up several with his outstanding board work, and two of the three goals came in a pivotal Game 4 win against the Flyers.

Not to mention our revelation of a fourth line with Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier and Steven Gionta. After an entire regular season where our fourth line was hard-pressed to even get one goal, putting those three together has been like winning the lottery. Carter has four goals in the postseason, with three big ones against the Rangers, Gionta has three and Bernier has two. Yet, their nine goals don't tell the whole story as this trio plays in all situations and has been able to take up some valuable minutes. They've been our best fourth line easily since the fabled crash line of the mid '90's (Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso). Holik and McKay would eventually graduate from fourth-line duty and make bigger contributions in years to come, but the Carter-Gionta-Bernier line has literally come out of nowhere. Gionta was an AHL nobody, other than being Brian's little brother, Bernier was a high-pick washout and Carter was waived by the Panthers earlier this season. Yet, here they are playing a pivotal role on a Stanley Cup Finalist.

Defensively, LA has the most talented player among the top twelve of both teams' defensive cores in Drew Doughty, who has ten points in fourteen postseason games and averages almost twenty-six minutes per game playing in all situations. He and vet Willie Mitchell combine for a formidable top-defensive pairing. In another lifetime, Mitchell was a failed Devils prospect but he's carved out a solid career as a stay-at-home type. Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene also provide the Kings with vet leadership in their defensive core. Young defensemen Alex Martinez and Slava Voynov round out the defensive core, with Voynov stepping in to fill the void of the traded Jack Johnson (dealt as part of the Carter trade). They make it tough just to get good opportunities on Quick, but won't really scare you offensively, other than Doughty. Voynov mans the point on the second power play, a unit that's struggled in the postseason.

While the Kings have Doughty to lead their offensive attack from the blueline, we have...Salvador. Yes, the career 35-year old stay-at-home defenseman is our leading point-getter from the blueline in the playoffs with three goals and eleven points, to go along with a team-leading +10 in 22:36 of icetime per game. Trade-deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky was supposed to be the guy who led the attack from the blueline, but he struggled against the Rangers after being injured late in the Flyer series. He still has eight points and a team-leading 24:08 of icetime per game but is another guy that will probably benefit from the Devils' break. Young Mark Fayne - only his second full season - and vet Andy Greene form a solid second pairing that have been shutting down teams' top lines at even strength all postseason. Amazingly, our highest-paid defenseman (Anton Volchenkov) plays on the third pairing and has struggled at times in the playoffs, with our second highest-paid (Henrik Tallinder) having been sidelined since the All-Star break with a blood clot in his leg. Former LA castoff Peter Harrold rounds out the top six with prized rookie Adam Larsson also ready to step in should someone get hurt or falter, the way he did in the second round when he scored a huge goal in Game 2 against Philly to turn that series around.

Coachingwise, DeBoer is in his first full season with the Devils and has pushed all the right buttons in leading this team to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first postseason ever, after three non-playoff seasons in Florida. Kings coach Sutter hasn't even been there that long, taking over in midseason and proving once again he's a much better coach than GM (after he succeeded as a coach and failed spectacularly as a GM in Calgary). Interestingly there's a bit of a subplot there as Sutter, in his previous role as Flames GM played a part in the departure of then-Devils coach Brent Sutter three offseasons ago. Even more coincidentally, DeBoer and Sutter - Brent, not brother Darryl - are good friends, but thankfully things worked out better for us over time than they did for the Sutters in Calgary.

Although the GM's play no part in this final series, it is interesting to note that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello went out of his way to help current Kings GM Dean Lombardi out when Lombardi was starting his career in the late '90's with a rebuilding Sharks team, and Lombardi repeatedly goes out of his way to mention Lou's generosity. In another spectacular coincidence, both found themselves in the crosshairs of the Kovalchuk contreversy two summers ago when each made a big push to try to sign the star Russian winger. Eventually it was the Devils who would retain the services of Kovy, at considerable cost but one that has been worth it to this point. Of course the fans in LA have let Kovy hear their displeasure in our two trips there since that wild summer and I'm sure it'll be rabid again for Games 3, 4 and possibly 6 there.

Given the fact the teams haven't played each other since October and there've been many changes since then - the Devils have gotten Zajac back from injury and added Zidlicky, forward Alexei Ponikarovsky and the entire fourth line to their roster this season, while the Kings have added Carter, promoted Voynov and changed coaches - makes it extremely hard to forecast this series. In addition, Quick only played one game against us, while Brodeur played one period, injuring his shoulder diving for a shot in the teams' first game against each other and missing the final two periods of that game and a couple of weeks after that. While you have to give the Kings respect for their talent and the way they've rolled to the Finals, as a Devil fan I can't really pick against us at this point after doubting them throughout the postseason.

I know the Kings can win, I wouldn't be crushed if they did at this point after all the Devils have accomplished in this postseason - more than anyone could have dreamed of before the playoffs started. Despite being the lower seed, the Kings are the betting favorite after the way they've dominated the postseason to this point. That said, at this point I have the confidence that's rare among fans who should know better and I believe the Devils can do almost anything. Why wouldn't I, after winning a tightrope first series against Florida, crushing the Flyers in four straight after a Game 1 loss in Round 2 and then finally staring down the ghost of playoffs past and beating a tough Ranger team to get this far? That, plus our superior depth I believe will have us finish off our most meaningful triumph yet, in the full seven games as Brodeur caps a storybook finish by taking home the Conn Smythe with the Cup this time.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Devils amazingly head to their fifth Stanley Cup Final

For years, Devils fans have had to be reminded about the greatness of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, a series the Devils lost in seven games with the Rangers winning in double OT of a seventh game at MSG on their way to a Stanley Cup. With the Devils and Rangers meeting in the ECF for the first time since then this year, the media drubbed the comparisons home to an insane level, especially when the Devils took a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 being in Jersey, just like '94 - on the exact same day of Game 6 1994. And just like '94, the Devils jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 6 last night only to see it dissapear. Game 6 2012 went to sudden-death OT last night and there were fifteen nervous minutes during the intermission in the stands. My legs almost felt too empty to stand up when the Devils came out for the start of sudden-death.

What happened just sixty-three seconds later was indescribable in so many ways.

After an initial point shot by Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Ponikarovsky corraled the rebound and put it on net. Seemingly an endless netmouth scramble followed with several Devils and Rangers converging around Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Kovalchuk, Ponikarovsky and Adam Henrique all had attempts on goal as the Ranger top defensive pair of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonaugh, as well as Brad Richards' line desperately tried to keep it out. During those several seconds (minutes it seemed to me), I was just praying the whistle didn't blow to stop play. Finally, the puck trickled loose in the crease past Richards who was on one knee, and from 120 I had a beautiful view of Henrique poking it home to begin mass celebration in Newark as the Devils won a dramatic 3-2 OT decision and the Prince of Wales trophy - at last burying the ghost of '94 once and for all - and closing out a resilient Ranger team four games to two.

Perhaps it just had to happen this way, this exact way. Staring down the ghost of 1994 in the most haunting way possible, with another blown two-goal lead in Game 6 at home this team had to either come through or relive history, there was just no other way. However, this Devil team has been burying ghost after ghost in these playoffs, starting in the first round when they stared down their recent first-round bugaboo (particularly a ghastly 2009 loss to Carolina late in Game 7) by beating a determined Panther team in double OT of Game 7 after blowing another late Game 7 lead - with interestingly, Calder candidate Henrique getting that series-clinching goal as well. Next, came the Flyers who punted the Devils out of the playoffs easily in 2010 at the Prudential Center. This year, we returned the favor by punting them out in five on their home ice.

Finally, they stared down the Rangers with not only the ghost of 1994 haunting the fans, but there was also 1992, 1997 and 2008 - other playoff series wins that gave the franchise and goalie Martin Brodeur perhaps an undeserved stigma. Even the one time we finally crushed them in the first round of 2006, the thrill was short-lived as the Devils lost in five games of the second round of the playoffs. Just two years later, the Rangers gained revenge for that series with Lundqvist taking a victory lap at the Rock after Game 5, cheered on by the half of the arena decked out in Ranger blue and white. Not only did the Devils respond this year, but the fans also responded, as the stands for these three home games was as filled with red and white as I've ever seen for Devil-Ranger games in Newark or the several I was at in East Rutherford.

Not only had the Rangers had playoff success against us for the most part, but for the last five years since 2008, Lundqvist has had Brodeur's number head-to-head with insane numbers against the Devils in the thirty plus games the teams have played since then. And this year, Lundqvist dominated everyone the way he has the Devils, at thirty years old he was at the height of his power, while Marty at forty looked alternately past his prime in between flashes of the old Marty. This was going to be a challenge, on and off the ice. Anyone bringing up Lundqvist's overall playoff win-lost record is a joke, this guy was at worst the second best goalie in hockey this year and it was close between him and Kings goalie Johnathan Quick, plus he carried the Rangers through the first two rounds and to a lead after three games of this series.

Enough about the past though, last night stood on its own merits as a classic game, even without everything else around it - the rivalry, the history and what was at stake. Certainly what was at stake ramped up the nervousness and intensity that much more though. Since the Devils' last Stanley Cup in 2003, they hadn't even been out of the second round of the playoffs but now they stood on the brink, one game away from their fifth Stanley Cup Finals. Everyone knew what a loss meant, a Game 7 back at MSG on Sunday night, where the Rangers had won their previous two series in Game 7. While I wouldn't have put it past the Devils to lose last night and win Game 7 after everything that's happened in this postseason, this was a game the Devils needed to win and not mess around with the Rangers' Rocky tendencies in a coinflip scenario.

I had an interesting trip into Newark last night, hopping on the train at the South Orange station at 6:15, I figured I'd have enough time to walk to the arena from Broad Street (about twenty minutes), then make it with plenty of time to spare for the pregame skate and to see my arena buddies before the game. However, a downed power line slowed up traffic and being on the Hoboken train didn't help, as the NY-traveling trains were seemingly given priority to pass us on the left track, as well as the trains going back from NY on what proved to be almost an hour delay. After some stops and starts reminiscent of the wait you get on an aircraft before takeoff, finally we arrived into Newark at 7:20. With sunlight still out, I was determined to get my walk in and it just so happened I had a nice younger couple sitting behind me who'd never been to the Prudential Center before, so I showed them the easy walk up Broad Street towards the arena and basically played tour guide on the way up. I probably wouldn't have even bothered to start talking to them if we didn't have so many delays, so I guess something productive came out of the backup at least.

With my friend who usually comes with me during the playoffs and several times during the regular season at a concert, I promised I'd text her updates at the end of every period or when the Devils scored. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I'll take great precautions to sell any extra tickets to Devils-Ranger games to Devil fans on message boards (usually HF), but once the Devils went up 3-2 I figured the arena would be chock-full of Devil fans anyway and if some Ranger fan wanted to spend a crapload of money to come by himself to either see us win the Eastern Conference, or at worst tie up the series, then c'est la vie. Once again though, the arena was filled with red and white as Devil fans were hungry to see us win this game against this team. And lo and behold, the seat next to me was bought up by a Devil fan...I cleared basically three times sth face value for the seat so I was a little embarassed at first when the guy started asking me if it was one of my season tickets - clearly he was perceptive - finally, I told him it was and he genuinely appreciated me selling the ticket. Nice guy, but clearly another one that didn't go to many games, and kept bringing up the good view of the Devils Dancers from my section...but you get those types during the playoffs.

At least my two current STH buddies were there on my right-hand side, as usual...though unbeknownst to me, one of them had to leave midway through the third because he had to go to work (as a police officer) so unfortunately only Rudy - the one next to me - got to see the incredible finish. As the start neared, I felt the goosebumps a lot more during this game than throughout the rest of the playoffs. Everything that the game meant dawned on me during the rocking pre-game intro. As usual, Arlette sang the anthem with the lower bowl moving a giant flag around the left side of the lower bowl, though she added a different twist with her and her daughter waving the rally towels when it was over. Finally, the puck dropped and the greatest reality TV out there - a big sports contest - was underway.

Things started out hairy early, with a Bryce Salvador high-sticking penalty giving the Rangers an early power play just three minutes in, but the PK'ers were on their game last night and killed that off, as well as two later penalties in the game. Midway through the period, our incredible fourth line came up with another big goal, after Steve Bernier caused a turnover and moved around ill-fated Michael Del Zotto, and finding Steven Gionta on the resulting two-on-one. Lundqvist stopped Gionta on the initial shot, but Ryan Carter was johnny on the spot trailing the play and knocked home the rebound for his fourth goal of the postseason (each seemingly bigger than the last) to get the wall of red rocking at 10:05 of the first period. After a Ruslan Fedotenko tripping penalty just a couple minutes later, the Devils' PP went to work and would capitalize after some beautiful passing, with David Clarkson whipping it to Danius Zubrus along the boards, and Zubrus proceeded to find a wide-open Ilya Kovalchuk, sneaking in through the backdoor at 13:56 to fire home his seventh goal of the postseason and increase the Devils' lead to two.

Despite a high-tempo first period where each team had fourteen shots on net (around what both teams managed in an entire game at MSG earlier in the regular season), the score remained at 2-0 after twenty minutes to the roar of the crowd. As exciting as the 2-0 lead was, I felt things had to calm down for us to maintain the lead but for the second straight game of the series, falling behind proved to be almost a good thing for the Rangers, who gave us problems with their forechecking in Game 5 and last night, once they finally came out of the shell they played the first four games of the series. The team in blue had the better of play in the second period, outshooting us 13-7, and Fedotenko broke the ice for them with a tap-in goal at 9:47 off a beautiful feed from McDonaugh that somehow eluded the sticks of Brodeur and both defensemen in the area. Seemingly after the soft goal Brodeur allowed to him in Game 4, Fedotenko picked up his game in the last two of the series, looking more like the playoff hero of seasons past than the invisible man he was through the postseason this year. Less than four minutes later, deja vu struck, as a Girardi point shot hit Ryan Callahan, who scored a goal off his leg for the second straight game, tying Game 6 at 13:41 of the 2nd period.

From there, the game just had the feeling of next goal wins. And through a tense rest of the second and third periods, it looked increasingly likely the Rangers would get that next goal. After the second intermission though, something nice happened. Walking around the concourse, I heard multiple Devil fans encouraging each other to hang in there. The atmosphere really has gotten more communal this postseason, between Devil fans making sure other Devil fans got in the building in the last two rounds to an increasingly positive atmosphere - even as this postseason has threatened to drive me to the loony bin. When I ran into my former seatmate in 208 around the concourse, I said in exacerbation, 'how many times can they blow a multi-goal lead and get away with it?'. He said simply, 'just get one goal' with a measure of grim determination and confidence.

Things didn't look much better on the ice in the third though, as the Rangers again outshot us 8-5, and got the only power play chance of the period after a meh interference call on Carter. Our best penalty killer though, and the most poised of anyone on the ice last night was Brodeur. For the second time in the postseason, he came up huge when the team absolutely needed it the most (the other time being in Game 7 against Florida after the tide turned in the third period)...the mark of not only a great player, but a true leader as well. Among his thirty-three saves in regulation came a couple of tough chances in the third period, on a rebound shot by Marian Gaborik where he stacked the pads, then poke-checking a breakaway off the stick of Artem Anismov after Marek Zidlicky nearly sent me to the loony bin for good giving up the breakaway with some 'interesting' defending. Even in the OT, the Rangers had the first chance on the first shift but Brodeur poked away a dangerous pass to end a good scoring opportunity.

Then finally, came the wild Henrique winner and mass chaos afterward. I was screaming 'YES, YES, YES!!!' over and over again, and when I was trying to text my friend to give her the final result someone jumped out of nowhere and hugged me, causing me to drop my phone into the next row. It took me the next minute or so to retrieve it from the four empty seats in front of me (usually they've been occupied by opposition fans throughout the last two rounds, so it was even more of a relief to see them empty tonight) while the mayhem was going on. Finally I was able to get it back, and finish the text as well as get pictures of the handshake line and the celebration. Zach Parise handled the presentation perfectly imo, while he didn't touch the Prince of Wales trophy - at one point, after asking Brodeur if he should, Marty said no - he did gather up the rest of the team for a lovely picture with it.

After sticking with Rudy and the rest of section 120 during the postgame celebration I was walking out...then it occured to me that I should wander by 208 (which I hadn't been able to bring myself to go to all season) and see if Zach - my former seatmate who I'd seen in the second intermission - and the few other people I knew in that section were still there. Much to my delight, they were, and I hugged him too, as well as slapping fans with a couple of the other guys I knew and sat with for years before circumstances beyond anyone's control caused me to move this year. I left quickly, wanting to make the last light rail out and see my other train buddies as well. Despite all the emotion at the arena, the only moment where I really came close to 'losing it' was the first time I heard Doc Emrick's call of the Henrique goal after I got home. It sounded so perfect, especially given that in the first season since he reluctantly left us to just do network games, we finally got deep enough in the playoffs again to hear him call multiple Devil games. Even the third and fourth time hearing 'THEY SCORE! HENRIQUE! IT'S OVER!!!' gives me chills. He was professional the whole series, but you could tell his allegiance slipped through just a little bit in his voice on that goal, and as a Devil fan it was a perfect touch.

With almost five days between now and the Stanley Cup Finals at this point I'm not even in the mood to think about the Kings. Yet I have no doubt coach Pete DeBoer will be able to refocus his team on the final task remaining, especially with so much time between games. I haven't had a chance to listen to the postgame stuff yet, but I did hear a little of DeBoer's press conference and once again he hit the right note, mentioning guys like Danius Zubrus who've played in the league fifteen years and only had one crack at the Finals as a young pup in Philly before finally getting back now. While it would be sweet for Marty to have a Cinderella finish to the end of his career, the fact is most of this roster hasn't been a part of anything like this. Among players on the ice only Marty, Carter, Patrik Elias and Anton Volchenkov have even taken part in the Finals before with the first three being the only prior Cup winners (Carter with the Ducks a couple years back).

There will be plenty of time to preview that series, thankfully the focus can be just about hockey and winning now instead of having the deathly fear of losing that I had in the first three rounds - round one because of our recent playoff history in the first round, and the last two rounds up going up against our biggest rivals. As Derek put it yesterday, no matter how well your team did all season and how much heart they show, it still puts a damper on everything when you lose to a rival. I'm sure Derek's feeling that now, even though he has nothing to be ashamed of with his club. They played like Rocky all year, up until the final seconds of the final game. Fortunately for us, the ending of the movie was like the initial Rocky movie when he loses on points and both him and Apollo wind up in a clinch with Apollo shouting 'I don't want no rematch'. That was how we were going to have to beat the Rangers, by outlasting them in a war of attrition and on points, not by knocking them out.

After all of the ups and downs, and the tenseness of this postseason, it still feels surreal to think of the Devils being in the Stanley Cup Finals. Before the season, we were predicted to finish 10th or 11th in the conference, as Steve Cangelosi accurately pointed out last night. At the All-Star break more than halfway through the season, the Devils were still on the playoff bubble before finally getting some seperation from the pack in February. Even when getting to the postseason, the Devils were under the radar as a sixth seed who finished fourth in their own division. If you'd told me the Devils would be at this point after the ghastly events of Game 3 against Florida, I'd have had you committed. Yet, here we are...our fifth and most unlikely trip to the Finals ever, in a series where the lowest seed ever is guaranteed to win a Cup - with the previous low being the '95 Devils, who won as a fifth seed. The last time we were in the Finals, I wasn't even a season ticket holder, I was just getting single game seats any way I could during the last two rounds of the playoffs. 2003 really isn't a long time ago from a sports perspective but it's a long time from a life perspective.

Playoff hockey in June, gotta love it!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Tonight's the night

Here's where I'm supposed to write a letter to the Rangers and pray for a win tonight. I won't do that. If you're True Blue, then you know how great this year's been already. Nobody picked us to come close to winning the toughest division in hockey let alone finishing first in the East.

So, why should Friday, May 25, 2012 be any different? There are plenty of doubters who don't believe this team can win in New Jersey later. That's fine. All year, these Blueshirts have battled back, showing a strong resiliency when called upon. It's why I don't have to say anything. Neither should John Tortorella.

It's quite simple. Win and there's another game to play Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Lose and it's a bitter pill to swallow. I could care less about the stuff being written about how our team is "elite" again. That's doesn't MATTER.

I think I speak for Hasan too when I say this. Whenever you are up against a hated rival, you have to win. No excuses. The Rangers aren't a team that uses alibis. Forget the wear and tear or who's hurt, etc. You don't think the Devils have guys playing through pain? It comes down to will. Are they prepared to go the extra mile and do whatever it takes within the league boundaries to win?

The other night showed me that they can do it. I know I'm far from alone when I say I still BELIEVE. This is about a T-E-A-M coming together to sacrifice their bodies for more glory. It's about 12 forwards, 6 defensemen and 1 goalie who don't want it to end. They know what they have to do. Forget the historic significance of 18 years ago. This is about the present. A team has a chance to write their own script.

Artem Anisimov
Stu Bickel
Martin Biron
Brian Boyle
Ryan Callahan
Mike Del Zotto
Brandon Dubinsky
Ruslan Fedotenko
Marian Gaborik
Dan Girardi
Carl Hagelin
Chris Kreider
Henrik Lundqvist
Ryan McDonagh
Brandon Prust
Brad Richards
Mike Rupp
Marc Staal
Derek Stepan
Anton Stralman

It's up to you New York.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Moment Of Truth

As Zach Parise sealed the Devils' 5-3 Game Five victory to put the Rangers on the brink, the Garden grew silent. As I sat in my Section 411 Row F 14 seat reflecting for another 15 minutes after the buzzer sounded while most filed out, the haunting reality set in. Much like New York's two wins in the Battle Of Hudson, New Jersey had stolen one to move within one win of the Stanley Cup Final where the Kings already await.

If it's true that the Devils had the better of the play during the first four games of the Eastern Conference Final, that wasn't the case last night. Brandon Dubinsky's return to the lineup along with Brandon Prust provided the Rangers with more depth to compete against a worthy opponent.  As Stephen Gionta took advantage of a rebound following a missed high stick right to Derek Stepan, you had that sinking feeling. Especially when Adam Henrique's shot evolved into the Magic Bullet Theory off Patrik Elias and Artem Anisimov past a late reacting Henrik Lundqvist. Or as John Tortorella described, "Puck luck." But he also told Stan Fischler, "That's hockey."

Sometimes, you make your own breaks. The Rangers certainly cashed in when they had to in taking Games One and Three. The power play was a big part of why they led before the Devils flipped the script the last two games. Game Four was forgettable. Yesterday was gutwrenching with the resilient club we've cheered for digging out of a 3-0 hole after Lundqvist allowed his worst goal of the playoffs to Travis Zajac from way out. A save he makes 99 out of 100 times. He wasn't sharp and this time, needed his teammates to pick him up. They tried by giving their best effort of the series. As fate had it, it wasn't enough.

A day later, the older generation of Ranger supporters referenced J.P. Parise in 1975. Ironically, Zach's Dad who broke Ranger hearts with a similar goal to the one unsung Devil hero Ryan Carter scored with 4:24 remaining. That game saw the Blueshirts rally from three down to tie the hated Islanders before falling in excruciating fashion, igniting one of hockey's most storied rivalries. The Devils have been around for four decades. Amazing to think that here we are in 2012 with our new biggest rival again pushing us to the ledge with a must win Game Six tomorrow in Newark. Only this time it's a different building with no players left aside from Martin Brodeur, who was a young pup in 1994.

Much like that year, it won't be easy. It never is. This is who the Rangers are. A team that drives its loyal fanbase nuts. Just when you think they're out, they pull you back in. How many Garden Faithful came away thinking the series was over? After controlling roughly 50 of 60 minutes, you won't find our hand raised. Nobody would dispute that the Devils and resident blogger Hasan know they got away with one. Elias said so as did other Devils. They know they'll have to be better to close the Rangers out. Figure Lundqvist to be at his best facing elimination. Another twist considering that it was Mike Richter who saved our bacon in Game Six before Mark Messier rescued us.

But that's where the comparisons to '94 end. This isn't 18 years ago. These Blueshirts are built much differently with an emphasis on goaltending and defense. There's no Messier or Brian Leetch to elevate the offense. No Adam Graves to finish around the net or Sergei Zubov to run an actual power play that intimidated opponents instead of the other way around. The 2011-12 New York Rangers are a T-E-A-M. Yes, they need Brad Richards to have his fingerprints all over tomorrow instead of the lack of finish, lazy backchecking and forcing Lundqvist to make his best save. Was that a hallucination with six and a half minutes left or did he deliberately shoot at his own teammate to get a whistle? Only at MSG.

Richards is the offensive leader of the Rangers. During the first two rounds when they needed him most, he stepped up. No goals for the Conference Final ain't getting it done. Even Marian Gaborik showed a pulse yesterday. Granted. His miraculous goal was due to Brodeur's ridiculous gaffe that had the building serenading him with trademark, "Maa---rtttty, Maa-----rrrtttyyy" chants. The one that really could've changed Game Five was in the first prior to Zajac's crusher when Ruslan Fedotenko set Gaborik up for a gimme. Somehow, he missed. I'm still not sure how. It definitely hurt. Though you still expect Lundqvist to make that stop on Zajac even if our D was despicable. Nobody has more pressure on him than King Henrik tomorrow. Not even the Devils, who are in a great spot.

It starts with Lundqvist, who must return to the form that has him up for the Hart and Vezina. He's had a brilliant season, carrying the Blueshirts on his back. Without him, they're not here. It's also the first time he's ever made it past the second round. But at 30, that's not the goal. This is supposed to be his time. So, he needs to be at his absolute best when the puck drops at The Prudential Center Friday. At least half the Devils' goals the past two games were ones he should've had. That's the difference between leading and trailing. Three goals on their first five shots and four on a dozen is un-Lundqvist like.

The Devils still deserve credit for responding once the Rangers tied it. Even if our three goals were unpredictable starting with Brandon Prust's breakaway that pumped life into the building. It's funny but after the first, I called up Dad and told him I felt they would come back. They weren't playing that badly. When Artem Anisimov threw the puck for a driving Ryan Callahan in front during the first minute of the second, it was confirmed even if a lengthy video review determined that he didn't kick the puck in. Skating that fast, it would've been nearly impossible to pull off without a bit of luck. That one shift is what's been lacking most of the series. It was on display throughout during a gritty comeback. It's like someone set the alarm off and reminded them that's how they should've been playing all along.

Tortorella took his timeout after Elias' marker. The Rangers were much better. They dictated the play by dumping and recovering pucks and finishing checks. They won faceoffs and board battles. The formula paid off when Brodeur had one of his worst moments, fumbling a puck near the ridiculous trapezoid and then Gaborik shooting it off the stumbling goalie and watching it trickle in. When it happened, I think I was the only one who saw the puck cross the line because there was hardly any reaction until the refs pointed. At 17 seconds of the third, MSG was bedlum. In that moment, you felt like something good would happen. One thing about the Devils. They are mentally tough enough to fight back. We saw it in the first round against Florida and again yesterday.

It's true that the Rangers took their foot off the accelerator. Against an aggressive foe like New Jersey, you can't do it. The Devils started controlling the neutral zone and getting the puck deep. You could almost see it coming. I quietly did next to my brother when Marek Zidlicky's smart dump was recovered by a hustling Gionta, who made a tremendous pass for Carter for the game-winner. Sometimes, it's the little things that decide these games. One glaring mistake and it's in your net. The Devils' fourth line was their best and the only one I feared because they were the one unit creating problems. We saw it on Gionta's goal which set the tone and unfortunately, when the same midget with the big heart outhustled our guys. Carter may have been the game's First Star as voted by the media. But Gionta was in our book. He made the play. Otherwise, it probably goes to overtime and who knows what we're talking about today.

Tortorella was quick to point out that his club didn't defend it. Carl Hagelin was too late to deny Carter and Richards was culpable. They were far from alone. Mike Del Zotto had another dreadful game, finishing minus-three. The one time the offense showed up was also the instant the defense leaked enough to let the Devils prevail. It can either be one we talk about for a while or one that's already forgotten like Tort's players will try to do at The Rock. In the postseason, you must have a short memory to survive four grueling rounds and win 16 games for the most prestigious trophy in sports. That's been the Rangers' motto all season.

The moment of truth has arrived.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Devils win surreal shootout in Game 5

Sometimes you just can't find the right way to open or close a blog...especially after what was a bizarre Game 5 of this already wild Eastern Conference Finals, a game in which the Devils jumped out to an unexpected 3-0 lead at the Garden then melted down and got dominated for fifty minutes of play as the Rangers tied the game with some strange goals, before catching the one break they needed with a Ryan Carter rebound goal at 4:24 that proved just enough to finally win the game. Even with a tremendously meaningful win, at this point I'm too tired to celebrate. It literally was take two Advils and move on type of a game. I'm sure Derek probably feels much worse, after losing a game like that. Actually, the headline on sums it up perfectly...'To Hell and back'. That's really what it was.

After dominating - especially at the beginning of each game - in the first four games, the Devils came out the first five minutes of this game like they meant business, with Stephen Gionta opening the scoring off a rebound of a Mark Fayne shot just 2:43 into the match. Steve Bernier also got an assist on little Gio's opening goal, his third of the postseason Just ninety seconds later, Patrik Elias scored the first of a series of strange goals on the night, as a puck bounced off his leg and off of Artem Anisimov's leg past Henrik Lundqvist for a shockingly quick 2-0 lead with Adam Henrique and Ilya Kovalchuk getting the assists on Elias's fourth postseason 'goal'. Being outshot 4-0 and thoroughly outskated, Ranger coach John Tortorella used his timeout less than five minutes into the game, underscoring the importance of the situation. After kicking the team out of practice a couple of days ago and stating that he needed to 'pray' for more production from his top line, apparently Torts finally found the right message to his team during those thirty seconds.

Even with the Rangers playing better immediately after the timeout, the Devils still took a 3-0 lead when Travis Zajac scored his team-leading seventh of the playoffs on a normal wrist shot at 9:49 with assists from Zach Parise and scoring machine Bryce Salvador, the kind of soft goal Lundqvist never gives up against the Devils. Maybe he's finally starting to show the effects of playing nineteen playoff games in six weeks? Whatever the case, even that bad goal didn't stop the Ranger onslaught. Despite an onslaught of blue that included a strange carom off the boards that nearly bounced past Martin Brodeur into an empty net, the Rangers' only goal was something of a fluke play when Brandon Prust got a breakaway and Marty tried a pokecheck, but somehow the puck wound up going under him after Prust botched the initial shot. At this point, I was just praying it didn't get to 3-2 at the end of the period the way it did in the first round against Florida in Game 3, when the Devils also blew a quick 3-0 lead.

While the Devils were fortunate to get out of the first still at 3-1, they were decidedly unfortunate when Ryan Callahan's 'redirection' off a skate found its way past Brodeur just thirty-two seconds into the second period. Unlike most Devil fans, I thought Callahan was skating sideways and it was hard to tell whether he kicked it intentionally or not given that fact but even if it was a bad call, it doesn't change the fact the Devils got dominated yet again in the second period, with Brodeur making several big saves to maintain the Devils' now slender lead. At one point, the Devils were outshot 19-4 after the second pivotal Torts timeout in the postseason - well second according to the media, I thought his timeout in Game 3 got a bit overplayed since the Rangers were still dominated for much of the second period, but obviously tonight he finally found the right message for his team. Either that or the Rangers just decided they didn't want to get embarrased at home.

For seventeen minutes during the intermission, I was relieved to still be at 3-2. That only lasted seventeen seconds once the third period started though, when Brodeur again misplayed a puck near the trapezoid of doom with Marian Gaborik pouncing on that, firing a shot into Brodeur then somehow swatting the puck in when Marty seemed to have it covered. That goal was reminiscent of a similar one Marty gave up against Florida in Game 5 of the first round, honestly I don't know what's going on but that trapezoid is spooking him like it never has before. That could have been a crushing blow, honestly I thought it was. I was just hoping it wouldn't be a 3OT loss with Mike Rupp scoring the game winner. New York got a scare of their own when Kovalchuk beat Lundqvist later in the third, but the goal was waved off due to the puck being played by a high stick, and even more remarkably Brad Richards shot the puck into his own goaltender but Lundqvist made his best save of the night to prevent that one from going in.

Other than that one non-chance and that gifted shot on goal, the Devils really didn't create much in the third, but neither did the Rangers. Perhaps they were just as spooked by Zajac's goal and the one that got by him earlier in the third and went back to the tortiose defense. Devil fans were just as puzzled by Pete DeBoer not using his timeout while the Rangers were dominating, but I agree with the coach in this panic and use the timeout when you're leading, and you don't have it later on in case of a late-game icing or some other play setup. Which is exactly what happened, as DeBoer used his timeout midway through the third period after an icing call.

With both teams in a more defensive posture after a number of strange goals and almost-goals the game settled down, probably to the relief of the Devils. Yet, still I was prepared for the inevitable...until Carter took a pass from Gionta and fired a quick snapshot past Lundqvist for a stunning lead goal against the run of play, with Marek Zidlicky also getting an assist on Carter's third goal of the postseason. Consider at this time early in the season, Gionta was a career minor leaguer, Bernier was a former first-round pick washout without an NHL job and Carter was placed on waivers from the Panthers. Now that unlikely threesome has formed a life-saving fourth line in the playoffs. For years I've been wanting the Devils to get an actual NHL fourth line and saying how important it was, and it took a long time this year but it finally happened, almost by accident. Even after Carter's goal I wasn't particularly confident but Parise's empty-netter with just thirty-two seconds left finally sealed a wild game.

After the match, Stan Fischler remarked to Tortorella in his press conference how it was unfair that the Rangers lost. To his credit, Torts didn't agree and said among other things, 'it's hockey'. While I don't disagree with Stan, I hope he was saying the same things when we dominated much of Games 1 and 3, and lost thanks to great performances from Lundqvist. I can't argue with the fact that now three of the five games in this series have gone to the team that's been outplayed. It's about time one of those went our way though. On his end, DeBoer said afterward that the lead was unexpected and they didn't handle it well. At least they didn't completely crap out in this one, unlike that aformentioned Game 3 against Florida. For a team with as much character as the Devils, they sure didn't show a lot of poise today...but like Doc Emrick said on the broadcast (referencing a Ken Hitchcock quote), the other team's in the league and wants to win too.

Of course now that the Devils are up 3-2 in the series, with Game 6 being on the same night and in the same state that it was eighteen years ago during that classic Eastern Conference Finals, we're never going to hear the end of 1994 talk for the next couple of days. Ironically this is probably a game that has both me and Derek confident. I'm sure he's confident that the Rangers can carry over their play in Game 5 (judging by his tweets) and I'm confident in the respect that we should play a much better all-around game in Game 6, especially after surviving a trial by fire. Plus, Lundqvist hasn't been his usual stellar self in the last couple of games and they definitely need him to get a second wind to win two games in a row in this series.

Whatever happens, I'm sure it'll be another agida-inducing game for both fanbases. At least it should be rocking at the Rock Friday, particuarly after Games 3 and 4 where the crowd was as good as I've ever seen it for a Devil-Ranger game (in terms of the ratio of Devil fans to Ranger fans). Of course, it's up to the Devils to give the crowd some 'candy' and have something special to cheer about Friday night.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Change it up

At some point with your offense struggling, you have to make changes. Part of the reason John Tortorella has succeeded this season was because he's been able to push the right buttons. Even if I haven't always agreed with every decision, more often than not the fiery coach has gotten his team to respond.

Here the Rangers are again facing adversity against a better quality opponent than the first two rounds. Wednesday's Game Five could decide who wins this Battle Of Hudson and advances to play for the Stanley Cup. How Tortorella handles it could impact whether they win or lose. It's still up to the players to perform. Big pieces Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan have been ineffective at even strength. In fact, only Callahan's scored and that was into an open net. At least Richards has helped set up important power play goals, including his clean win that led to Dan Girardi's Game Three decider. And Callahan did have a hand in Chris Kreider's insurance marker over the weekend.

However, the Rangers haven't gotten consistent play against their blood rival, who's had the better of the play five on five by winning the battles in the corners and neutral zone to control the series. The lifeless first periods are getting redundant. It's a recipe for disaster. If they can't summon up the energy to bring it at the start of Game Five with an amped up Garden, perhaps they should throw in the towel. I'm not suggesting our team will give up easily. But this trend can't continue if they want to win the franchise's fifth championship.

It still has a chance to be very special. The Blueshirts look like they need some changes. Tortorella has often changed it up when things aren't working. Look at the success Pete DeBoer had yesterday by splitting up Zach Parise (2 goals, assist) and Ilya Kovalchuk (assist) while inserting Jacob Josefson (9 faceoff wins). I don't think you'll find many Ranger fans who think our top line should stay intact. Gaborik has been forced to the perimeter and Richards and Hagelin aren't doing enough. When right, the trio is an excellent cycling line that creates chances and finishes. But they clearly need a change.

My suggestion is to bump up Kreider, who's size, skill and strength would give Richards and Gaborik more time and space. By flipping Hagelin and Kreider, it might give a boost to our key players. Callahan can play with almost anyone as can Stepan, who also had success with Gaborik earlier this season. With Brian Boyle clearly not 100 percent, it puts more of an emphasis on the top two lines to perform. Boyle also can use help. And I don't mean by sticking stonehands Mike Rupp on it to goon it up. Encouraging is that Brandon Prust will return, giving Tortorella another physical forward he trusts. I still believe Artem Anisimov is miscast on the fourth line. He has nine or 10 points. Not two. Play him.

Ruslan Fedotenko has been one of the club's most consistent workers. He has a wealth of big game experience stemming from two Cups, including '04 when he was a hero under Tortorella in Tampa Bay. Our coach needs to mix and match. Even John Mitchell has been effective in spurts, like that great shift he had to help set up Kreider's third of the series. One thing about Tort. He's never locked in when it comes to lines. Adjusting on the fly is something his players are accustomed to.

Changing it up won't bother them. Especially if Brandon Dubinsky returns.

Rangers embarrass themselves

For much of last night, I had a prior engagement. Anytime you honor a fallen friend on an anniversary, it's more important than cheering your team. Even if it's Game Four of the Conference Finals. The Rangers had a golden opportunity to seize control of the series against their archrival. Instead, they saw their collective shadow by mailing it in.

My brother and I caught the first few minutes on the radio in time to hear Kenny Albert call Devil immortal Bryce Salvador's third goal. A guy who had none all season now is suddenly the Devils' most consistent player. At that point, we could tell that our team had no life. They weren't going to win. The 4-1 loss was all too predictable. So, for a third consecutive series, it's 2-2 going back to MSG for a pivotal Game Five. If only by now they realized that these Devils aren't the Sens or Caps. A repeat of yesterday could spell doom.

Following our tribute on the two-year anniversary of Lindzay's death, we joined friends at Applebee's in time for the fateful third period. I guess that was all you needed to see considering what transpired. From the terrible lack of discipline that led to Zach Parise's power play goal to the goon tactics they tried, it was embarrassing. Whether I agree with the call on Mike Rupp for what seemed like a good hit doesn't matter. His shove or punch of Martin Brodeur depending on what side you're on was unacceptable. Even worse was Stu Bickel roughing up adversary Ryan Carter.

The game was already lost thanks to Derek Stepan's high stick and Henrik Lundqvist, who was unable to control a rebound from Parise while Ryan Callahan stood and watched. Hardly the kind of leadership we've come to expect from our captain, who also didn't register a hit. Rupp's antics following a strong shift in which he got one of the few good chances on Brodeur, erased any hopes of a comeback. Even if they can't score most nights, the one thing about these Blueshirts is their resiliency. Was it any surprise that following two mystifying Carl Hagelin minors, Ruslan Fedotenko snapped Brodeur's shutout when his routine wrister alluded the future Hall Of Famer?

Despite being severely outplayed for the third time in four games, John Tortorella's club didn't quit. The coach pulled his goalie with over two minutes left. And before Parise's bunt somehow hit the open net for his second, Dan Girardi nearly made it interesting. It probably would've been too late anyway to save face for such a dismal effort. How to explain? If it's true that the Devils did the same thing to the Rangers 18 years ago facing the daunting prospect of trailing 3-1, then it's also true that it doesn't mean a whole lot this time. That team was different, boasting firepower in its arsenal to come back from 3-2 and an 0-2 Game Six deficit. Does anyone think our popgun offense can do the same if they don't win tomorrow?

We've seen enough to conclude that it's the top seeded Blueshirts who are very lucky to be tied headed back to Manhattan for Game Five. And they were pretty fortunate against Washington in that one thanks to Brad Richards, whose line has been invisible. Has anyone seen Marian Gaborik? Enough excuses for Hagelin too even if he's not a natural finisher. No goals in the postseason should find him on a different line with more impressive newcomer Chris Kreider replacing the Swede. Speaking of Kreider, he's the only forward who's done anything, scoring three of the club's nine goals. It's his size, speed and strength that the Devils can't handle.

Perhaps the Blueshirts get another player with similar elements back in Brandon Dubinsky for tomorrow. Dubinsky practiced again for the third day in four and felt better but left it up to Tortorella, who got outcoached last night. Even if his latest screaming match with an incensed DeBoer has gotten most of the ink, someone has to explain to me why Artem Anisimov remains glued to the bench. Arty shouldn't be buried behind Rupp or John Mitchell. He has size and the strength to help the forecheck. You know. The one that's been the identity of this team over the idiocy we got Monday. It's getting pucks deep and recovering them. Then cycling like they did during the second half of Game Three. The same formula that worked in Game One and had similar results during the second period of Game Two.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out who the better team has been. The Devils have outplayed the Rangers five on five due to superior speed, size and grit. They've had the puck more often as the Rangers' eight giveaways suggested. We'll cut Mike Del Zotto some slak. It's very difficult when you lose a grandparent. Granted. His blatant turnovers led directly to Parise setting up Travis Zajac for the game-winner. Another giveaway nearly led to a third goal before Tortorella sat him down. To his credit, Del Zotto came back and competed by going hard to the net on Fedotenko's goal and mixing it up with Alexei Ponikarovsky with 12 seconds left. That kind of edge has been missing.

Is it good that the Rangers were physically engaged in garbage time? Sure. You don't want to give off the message that you're done. However, the silly penalties and total undiscipline is un-Ranger like. It also won't work against the Devils. Why else did Brodeur joke with Parise in the postgame? The coaches also took the high road, which is expected. It's not about them but about the players on the ice. Right now, advantage Devils.

The Rangers have some soul searching to do. Either find their game by 8 PM tomorrow or it could be a bitter end to a very good season. It's up to them.

Devils win testy Game 4, even series

After the Devils were frustrated by Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist in two of the first three games of this Eastern Conference Finals, tonight it was the Rangers' turn to be frustrated by Devil dominance, as New Jersey got two first-period goals and an early third-period power play goal to put the game on ice - then the Rangers melted down and took stupid penalty after dirty penalty in a chippy third period that got more of the postgame attention than the game itself. Perhaps that was part of the design of John Tortorella goon squadding it up in the third period, as the Rangers certainly didn't do much to beat us on the ice. More on that later though.

In many ways, the first four games have started exactly the same - with Devil dominance in the first thirty-forty minutes, and these games have all become a matter of whether Lundqvist can frustrate us long enough for either our defense or Martin Brodeur to make a critical mistake and give the Rangers' tortiose system just enough offense to win. Sometimes you have to give a great player his due, Lundqvist wouldn't be the first or the last goalie to steal a series. I'm not going to lie though, losing this series would be hard to swallow as a Devils fan, especially with how the first four games have gone. By all rights it should be 3-1, if not 4-0 (somewhat unrealistic, but indiciative of how the territorial play has gone).

Clearly after being shutout in Game 3, the Devils needed early goal(s) to turn the tide in Game 4. The icebreaker came from an unlikely source - defenseman Bryce Salvador who somehow fired a slapshot through traffic and under Lundqvist's legs at 8:10 for his third goal of the playoffs after assists by Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson. That was the moment I've been waiting for - the Rocky IV type moment when Rocky's trainer screams at him after hurting his Russian superopponent - 'You see, you see, he's not a machine! He's a man!'. After that goal came the first hint of nastiness when Ryan McDonaugh came up high with a check on Adam Henrique and the mild-mannered Devil center dropped the gloves for the Devils' first fighting penalty of the postseason as each player received five minutes in the box.

Although Henrique was okay tonight along the boards, that exchange definitely favored us and we took advantage of not having the Rangers' leading defenseman on the ice when newly assembled top line Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Danius Zubrus combined for a beautiful goal, with Zubrus getting the puck to Parise after some typically outstanding board work, then Parise danced around Michael Del Zotto and dished off to Zajac on a two-on-one. Zajac finished the play in style, rifling a one-timer past Lundqvist at 11:59. Although Brian Boyle and Anton Volchenkov traded penalties later in the first period, for most of the game's first forty minutes, the refs seemed intent on letting the players play.

Compared to what came in the first period and what was to come in the third, there wasn't much action in the second period although Ilya Kovalchuk and Ryan Callahan received matching minors when Callahan hit Kovalchuk after the whistle, and Kovy responded in kind with a spear. Early in the third period, Derek Stepan was called for high sticking and it only took the Devils four seconds to take advantage on the power play, when Henrique won the faceoff to Kovalchuk, who took a shot with Parise stuffing in the rebound in front for a critical goal 2:41 into the third, the captain's fifth of the playoffs.

Now down three goals, the Rangers started to melt down with former Devil Mike Rupp once again taking out his frustration on the team that drafted him. After Rupp took a slashing penalty, he astonishingly unloaded on former teammate and friend Brodeur, sucker-punching him after the whistle and starting an altercation that led to three seperate misconducts - Rupp, Stu Bickel and the Devils' Ryan Carter. Obviously the Rangers got the worst of that mess with Rupp taking a double minor as a result of the two seperate penalties. Clearly Rupp has a bone to pick with the Devils' franchise, feeling as if we stunted his career here and he should have been more than a fourth liner. This isn't the first time he's taken out his frustration on his former team, nearly decapitating Jay Pandolfo a couple of years ago when Rupp was still in Pittsburgh, among other offenses.

During that whole exchange for reasons only known to him, Tortorella started another screaming match with Pete DeBoer on the Devils' bench, despite the fact it was his player who started that whole mess. Clearly they don't like each other, probably because DeBoer (unlike other coaches) isn't afraid to call Tortorella out for his hypocrisy. Honestly I used to be a big fan of Torts. Good coach, fiery...but I've lost a lot of respect for him this year. It's not as if it's the first time his team's gooned it up against us when losing. Just YouTube his famous 'we know what we did' press conference when Torts was still with Tampa and they gooned it up after a convincing Devils win in Game 5 in a 2007 first-round series. Amazingly, Torts put the blame for that whole mess tonight on the refs for calling the initial penalty on Rupp.

Conversely, DeBoer took a pass on commenting about that whole mess, saying that Marty could take care of himself and responding to whether that incident would give us more fuel for the rest of the series, he said matter of factly that playing for a Stanley Cup was more than enough fuel. Even after the Rupp mess, things remained testy as Carl Hagelin took back-to-back penalties, including one that gave us a minute and twenty seconds on the five on three. Perhaps the only thing I didn't like about the Devils' game was their willingness to take their foot off the gas and not go for a fourth goal with numerous power play chances in the third. Being content to run off clock made things more interesting than they needed to be late when Brodeur gave up a soft goal from the point to Ruslan Fedotenko with 5:05 left to cut the lead to 3-1. It really is puzzling how Brodeur manages to make great reflex saves on bang-bang plays in front, but can't stop point shots in this series.

Fortunately the Rangers got no closer, with Parise sealing it on an empty-netter that went the length of the ice at 18:31. Ponikarovsky and Del Zotto took matching roughing penalties with twelve seconds left, but that only ended the on-ice chippiness. Will Rupp face a suspension for his cheap shot on Brodeur? Personally I thought he should have been ejected right there, and it definitely merits a suspension in my book. God forbid Torts whine some more about another suspension though. At least he talked for more than a minute and a half after a loss today, what a shocker.

Like DeBoer though, I'd rather focus on the series itself. With at least two competitive games remaining on Wednesday and Friday, the series really is simple...the Devils need to keep playing the way they're playing and continue to find ways to beat Lundqvist. Brodeur needs to step up his game even more. Statistically he's playing a fine series, but giving up a soft goal a game isn't going to cut it when we need to win a 1-0, 2-1 game, which I'm sure will have to happen at some point. Whatever happens, it'll be fun or excruciating depending on your point of view.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Prust suspended, Bickel in

Brandon Prust was suspended yesterday for tonight's Game Four for his elbow to the back of Anton Volchenkov's head. The right call by Brendan Shanahan even if some of our fans act like babies due to the inconsistency.

I can't speak for Larry Brooks or others on whether Dainius Zubrus' elbow to Anton Stralman was suspendable. I still haven't seen it or the Zach Parise hit on Mike Del Zotto. What I will say is that it's time to let it go. Plenty of teams would love to be in our position. A win would put us up 3-1 in the best-of-seven Conference Final against our top rival.

Leave the complaints to John Tortorella, who was very unsatisfied yesterday. The most important thing is that the Rangers have a great opportunity here to make it easier on themselves. They have this uncanny habit of not playing up to par with a chance to lead 3-1. The Devils aren't Ottawa or Washington. It's not advisable to mail it in. They must come with their best effort if they want to a shot to wrap it up back at The Garden Wednesday.

With Pete DeBoer splitting up Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, it puts more pressure on Tortorella to choose who he wants Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi against. Both lines should be equally difficult to handle. Marc Staal and Mike Del Zotto will have the added responsibility throughout the game.

Many think Prust's loss isn't a big deal but they couldn't be more wrong. Brandon plays an important role as a physical, grinding forward who can penalty kill and log key minutes. Stu Bickel won't get many shifts, which is why Tortorella better give increased responsibilities to Artem Anisimov and Ruslan Fedotenko. Both play each end and are good forecheckers. If they're not with Brian Boyle, that might not bode well.

Mike Rupp is trying hard but still has a penchant for taking bad penalties. I get that Tort wants to use him against David Clarkson. But doesn't it make more sense to have two guys who can skate and help Boyle's line offensively?

I won't see much of the game due to our friends honoring the two-year memory of a close friend. Priorities. I'll have my phone for text updates and then catch some of it when we head to Applebee's.

I'm sure Hasan will have plenty to say later.

The Puck Stops Here


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