Sunday, May 13, 2012
After a season where the Atlantic Division dominated the East with four 100+ point teams including the top-seeded Rangers and pre-playoff favorite Penguins, perhaps it's fitting that the Eastern Conference will in the end, come down to not only a classic division showdown - but yes, a Battle of the Hudson on the highest stage possible. Although the two teams have met in the playoffs three times since 1994, this season will be the first time since that memorable series that the two teams will meet with the Prince of Wales trophy at stake. With all that's on the line and given how much the world's changed in these last eighteen years, there has never been a more hyped Ranger-Devil series among their previous five playoff showdowns.
Unlike in 1994, when the Devils were an upstart and the Rangers were a prohibitive favorite with an entire city counting on them to end a 54-year drought, this year there's pressure on both sides to win. Although the Rangers aren't anywhere near the favorite this year they were in the spring of '94, they are still the #1 seed, and expectations have been ratcheted up warp-speed after a 109-point season and grinding out two seven-game wars in the first two rounds. And to a degree, there's still pressure on Henrik Lundqvist to deliver and not get outplayed in the prime of his career by a 40-year old Martin Brodeur, who has what Lundqvist wants - Cup rings.
Our pressure comes entirely from who the opponent is. Every Devil fan knows about our lack of playoff success against the Rangers - one win in five previous series. Brodeur knows this as well as any fan sitting in the corner sections of the Prudential Center, since he's been a part of all five series. After a short relief appearance in '92 when the Devils lost a seven-game series in the first round to the Rangers, Brodeur's been center-stage ever since. If 1994 was epic from a Ranger standpoint, it was a missed opportunity for the Devils, as they held a 3-2 lead in the series and a 2-0 lead at home in Game 6 and couldn't close it out thanks to legendary heroics from Ranger captain Mark Messier in Game 6 and Stephane Matteau's double-OT wraparound winner in Game 7. Even after the Devils won the Cup in 1995, the stigma of never beating the Rangers would haunt the franchise in 1997, as a top-seeded Devil team got bounced in five games (losing the last four in a row) at the hands of their bitter rivals, with Adam Graves providing the coup de grace with yet another OT wraparound goal in Game 5.
For several years after that, the Rangers fell on hard times while the Devils won two more Cups, cementing their status as the best team in the area - if not the most well-publicized. Our winning (especially a ridiculously long unbeaten streak against them in the regular season) grated on Ranger fans, and the attention the Rangers got despite being an overpaid and mediocre team made Devil fans envious. Finally in 2006, the two teams met again in the playoffs with the Devils on an eleven-game winning streak that gave them an unlikely division title and the Rangers having a surprisingly good season get spoiled with a five-game losing streak to end the regualr season and cost them the division. Both teams carried their momentum into the playoffs, as a four-game Devils sweep in the first round where we outscored them 17-4 and eliminated the Rangers on Garden ice finally got rid of the stigma of never having beaten Big Brother.
Just two years later, the teams met again in the first round with a drastically different result, as the Rangers would beat us eleven times out of thirteen that year between the regular season and playoffs, culminating in a 4-1 first round win. That series still remains a bitter memory for Devil fans, as they eliminated us on home ice with the Ranger fans making up approximately half the crowd and cheering Lundqvist as he took a victory lap around our rink. Not to mention ex-Devil Scott Gomez coming back to gain the best of us a year after leaving as a free agent. Perhaps the most memorable part of that series was when Brodeur refused to shake the hand of Ranger pest Sean Avery in the post-series handshake line.
While Avery's long gone, Brodeur still remains for the teams' sixth playoff showdown in two decades. Unlike in the last few seasons where Lundqvist has gotten the better of Brodeur, this year's been played on more even terms with each team winning three (though Martin Biron was in net for them in one of our wins). Two things have characterized this year's Ranger-Devil games - every one of them's been close, and three of the six games saw staged fights at the drop of the puck. In fact, they increased in number...from December 20 when Mike Rupp fought Cam Janssen three seconds into the game at the Rock, to February 7 when Eric Boulton and Brandon Prust dropped the gloves at the opening faceoff, along with a Janssen-Rupp rematch at the Garden, to March 19 when Boulton fought Rupp, Prust fought Janssen and Stu Bickel fought Ryan Carter in a three-fight start to the teams' last showdown at the Garden. That one proved memorable after the game too, when Ranger coach John Tortorella and Devil coach Pete DeBoer engaged in a verbal sparring match of their own during and after the game.
Fortunately, there probably won't be too many sideshow theatrics at this point, with what's at stake. Especially since talentless goons Boulton and Janssen won't play (thank goodness). What does concern me is how each game has been close. One of the few games that was decisive either way was the teams' first showdown at the Rock, where the Rangers dominated in terms of shots and used three third-period goals to break a 1-1 tie and win 4-1. Our next meeting also came in the Prudential Center on the last day of January, just after the All-Star break. Since he went to Ottawa, Lundqvist sat out for a rare Devils-Rangers game, but the Rangers still led 3-2 until a fluke goal off the boards by David Clarkson with less than a minute left in regulation got the Devils to OT, and eventually a shootout where they gained two points and evened the season series.
A week later, the teams played at the Garden with Brodeur getting a memorable 31-save shutout in a 1-0 win that saw contreversy towards the end when an apparent Artem Anisimov tying goal with seconds remaining was waved off due to goaltender interference. Three weeks later, they met at the Garden again and the result this time was a thoroughly dull game, with the teams combining for just twenty-eight total shots (15 for the Rangers, 13 for us) in a 2-0 Ranger win where they got an early goal by Carl Hagelin and then shut it down the rest of the way. On March 6, the Devils registered their most decisive win of the season series when they got three third-period goals to come up with a 4-1 win at home. Finally, the Rangers won the teams' last matchup 4-2 three weeks later after the six-person goonfest at the start of the game only served to fire them up more.
I'm not going to bother to preview the series proper, I'll let Derek do that since I'm sure he's got a lot to say about this showdown as well. All I'll say is this: Eighteen-on-eighteen I believe us to be the better team, and the Rangers you would think have to show the wear and tear at some point of playing ninety-six high-pressure games with the cautious, low-scoring, shot-blocking style they do. What worries me is twofold - Lundqvist-Brodeur and the fact the Caps matched the Rangers' intensity and shot-blocking in the last series, threw their game back at them really, and with better skill players...and the Rangers still found a way to win. While there's no real way to measure intangibles, the fact is Brodeur has to match Lundqvist for us to win. Whether that's by him stepping up or Lundqvist proving fallible. Despite Marty's struggles at times in the first two rounds (particularly against Florida), goaltending wasn't an issue against the Florida tandem of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, or against the streaky Ilya Bryzgalov. It could be in this series though. It's a strange thing to say, but among the four goalies left in the playoffs Marty's been the least effective of the four, and that's with numbers of around a 2.1 GAA and .920 save percentage.
What's clear is this...the stakes have just gotten amped up. No longer is it good enough that the Devils finally got out of the first round of the playoffs and had a great run, finally giving us mid-May hockey again. Now it's all chips to the middle of the table time. Either the Devils win and have a really epic playoff run beating the Flyers and Rangers back-to-back, or they lose and get their great run spoiled (especially if the Rangers go on to win the Cup). Armageddon starts Monday, with the full schedule below:
Game 1: Devils at Rangers, Monday, 8 p.m., NBCSN
Game 2: Devils at Rangers, Wednesday, 8 p.m., NBCSN
Game 3: Rangers at Devils, Saturday, May 19, 1 p.m., NBC (Ch. 4)
Game 4: Rangers at Devils, Monday, May 21, 8 p.m., NBCSN
*Game 5: Devils at Rangers, Wednesday, May 23, 8 p.m., NBCSN
*Game 6: Rangers at Devils, Friday, May 25, 8 p.m., NBCSN
*Game 7: Devils at Rangers, Sunday, May 27, 8 p.m., NBCSN