NHL Eastern Conference Finals Preview: New Jersey-NY Rangers

In 1994, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils staged one of the great conference finals battles in NHL history. The Rangers won that one, and their first Stanley Cup in 40 years. New Jersey responded by winning three Cups since, while New York hasn’t hoisted in the intervening years. The two teams, separated by only the George Washington Bridge, get set for another rumble to settle a trip to the Finals. Game 1 goes tonight in Madison Square Garden and TheSportsNotebook previews the series…

New York has done this the hard way. They drew Ottawa, the worst team in the entire playoff bracket, in the first round and then 7th-seeded Washington in the second. It was the rightful reward for the Rangers’ great regular season and they needed all the edges, because both series went to a Game 7. New Jersey needed all seven to dispatch Florida, a series they did not play well in, but survived and then turned it around looked sharp in eliminating Philadelphia in five games.

The Devils’ resurgence in the second round came about because their key offensive people awoke and realized it was playoff time. Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise on the wings were active and engaged in the attack. When that happens, role players like Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson’s contributions get magnified as well.

New York’s offensive threats enjoyed a similar revival in the second round. Marian Gaborik, who essentially carries the offense, was AWOL through almost all of the first round and the first part of the second, before becoming a big part of the attack, with a few goals, several assists and most importantly, being on the puck a lot and forcing the defense to work. Ryan Callahan, the #2 option on the wings also played well. But what the Rangers do much better than the Devils is run the offense thorough the center spot. Brad Richards and Derek Stepan were each good in the regular season and have been solid in the playoffs.

What New Jersey does much better than New York is play defense—I’m not referring to the goalies, but to the team defensive effort in front of them. They were one of the NHL’s best in the regular season at limiting shots and while they rank a little lower in the playoffs, a big part of that is having just played one of the league’s best offenses in Philadelphia. As effective as the Rangers’ key scorers can be, they are heavily dependent on Gaborik, whereas the Flyers could attack from a number of angles. Yet Jersey still got it done in round two.

There’s a big gap in how well each team is executing basic 5-on-5 hockey with no power play in effect and it calls to mind the question of how much we think a team can elevate its game in the playoffs by design rather than by chance. New Jersey, a mediocre 5-on-5 team through the season has morphed into the best during the playoffs. New York, 6th among 30 teams in the season, ranks 6th among just 16 in the playoffs. If this were after the first round I’d write it off as a too small a sample size. While a sabermetrician would undoubtedly say we need to play a thousand games or so before we can attribute this to anything other than random chance. I disagree, and think that when you’re halfway through the playoffs and New Jersey’s ranking significantly higher—and keep in mind these basic rankings don’t even adjust for the superior teams the Devils played—we can reasonably say that Jersey has been able to deliberately lift its game in the 5-on-5 area.

The Devils are also executing on the power play better, at least on the offensive side. The penalty kill is another question, with neither team executing well right now. For New York, this is a direct consequence of a team defensive effort  that has played below its regular season standards.

Now we come to the goalies. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the NHL’s best—perhaps not far and away the best, as the New York-biased media would have you believe. But his 93% save rate in the regular season was an elite number and he’s lifted his game slightly in the playoffs. Martin Brodeur, a part of New Jersey’s team back in the mid-1990s is no longer a great goalie and relies on the strength of the defense in front of him. But Brodeur has shown to be the prototypical proud veteran, lifting his save percentage by a little more than a full point in the playoffs—and if you don’t think that’s significant, just look at how many low-scoring one-goal games there are in postseason hockey. More important, Brodeur showed he could gin it up like old times and carry his team occasionally, as he did in Game 7 of the Florida series in the first round.

Having said all that…Lundqvist is still the better goaltender and to pick against the better goalie in the playoffs requires a lot to be on the other side. New Jersey’s a good, solid team, but if Gaborik and Callahan stay active, if the offense continues to run through Richards, New York will win the series and that’s who I’m picking. I’m rooting for New Jersey—in fact rooting strongly for them, as I like Brodeur and dread the notion of a Rangers’ Stanley Cup following a Giants’ Super Bowl. That’s too much of the New York Aristocracy. For New Jersey to win, they’ll need to hold New York below 25 shots on a consistent basis and get big offensive series from Kovalchuk and Parise. It’s realistic enough for me to think this will be a great series, but for the third straight round, the Rangers win a seventh game at MSG.