Get ready to see a lot of blue down low in their own end like in this picture. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE
The New Jersey Devils will take on their most hated rivals, the New York Rangers, in the Eastern Conference Finals. The winner will play for the Stanley Cup, the greatest trophy in all of sport. The loser will be subject to derision in seemingly perpetuity. If you didn't think this was a rivalry before this series, then I don't think you've been paying attention. It will certainly be taken to the proverbial "next level" over the next week or so.
Of course, we must take a colder look at both teams. While the emotions may run higher than usual and the stakes are bigger than ever, the teams are who they are. The Rangers have got to this point by playing right on the edge in almost every game, but coming out ahead with just enough scoring and plenty of shot blocking and shot stopping by their goaltender. The Devils arrived here on the strength of their possession at even strength, which has created many opportunities to score - and did just that. The Devils have had plenty of time to prepare, whereas the Rangers get one full day of rest.
In this series preview post, I hope to accurately convey the strengths and weaknesses of both teams in various categories. Playoff stats are still from a small population size; but recent play could be more telling than what they've done from October through the first week of April. If you want to know the schedule and other important facts about the series, then read this excellent primer for the series by Kevin. If you want to know what we think about the series in advance, please read our prediction post. Please continue on after a jump for a close look at both teams.
Let's start from the back and move outward. The goaltending match-up will be Martin Brodeur against Henrik Lundqvist.
|2011-12 - Martin Brodeur||59||3392||31||21||4||136||2.41||1472||1336||.908||.911||3|
|2012 Playoffs - Martin Brodeur||12||730||8||3
Martin Brodeur didn't have such a good first half of the 2011-12 season, performed much better from February to April, and has been good in the playoffs. He was excellent against Florida (95.6% save percentage at evens!), though his numbers dipped a little bit against Philadelphia. Still, a 94.7% save percentage at evens is nothing to sneeze at. He had a few poor goals against Philly, but for the most part, I don't think anyone can claim that he'll be a liability with his current playoff stats. Brodeur will not only be called upon to stop shots, but also to move the puck effectively from behind the net. It's a skill set that negates the dump-ins from many teams. I doubt the Rangers will honestly go to a dump-and-chase given Brodeur's skills at handling the puck unless they just focus on soft dumps. If they feel otherwise, I'm confident #30 can remind them why it's a poor choice.
|GP||MIN||W||L||OT/SO ||GA||GAA||SA||SV||SV%||EV SV%||SO|
|2011-12 - Henrik Lundqvist||62||3754||39||18||5||123||1.97||1753||1630||.930||.933||8|
|2012 Playoffs - Henrik Lundqvist||14||893||8
Lundqvist has been simply sensational in the 2011-12 regular season and in the Rangers' playoff campaign. He sees the puck well, he moves effectively, and he has incredible reflexes. Lundqvist is the main reason why the Rangers finished first in the East and they survived two seven-game series so far in the playoffs. The latter proved he can handle the pressure, both mental and physical, in the postseason. In general, Lundqvist just hasn't been lit up all that much the most goals he has allowed in a single playoff game in 2012 is three and he's only allowed four goals in regulation in four games in this past season. With so few pucks getting past him, the Devils need to make as many opportunities against him count as much as possible. They may not get that many to begin with thanks to Lundqvist's talent.
Both teams rely their top four defensemen. Here are the Devils' defensemen organized by average ice time in the playoffs according to NHL.com. The top two pairings, Marek Zidlicky & Bryce Salvador and Andy Greene & Mark Fayne, average well over 21 minutes per game and take on tough match-ups. The third pairing - now Anton Volchenkov and Adam Larsson - has been relegated to about 14-16 minutes per game. Now look at the Rangers' defefensemen organized by average ice time in the playoffs at NHL.com. New York has leaned heavily on Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, and Marc Staal; especially McDonagh and Girardi as both have averaged over 27 minutes per game. The difference is that their #5 guy, Anton Stralman, averages around 16 minutes per game and their #6 guy - either Stu Bickel or Steve Eminger - doesn't even average five per game. The Rangers essentially have played with five defensemen throughout the playoffs.
Who's been more effective? The Devils do have the superior numbers. According to NHL.com, the Devils are the active playoff leaders with only 27.4 shots per game. According to Behind the Net's situational stats, the Devils have the lowest SA/60 rate in 5-on-5 play among all active playoff teams at 24.3. Even their penalty kill has been relatively strong at allowing shots as they boast the best 4-on-5 SA/60 rate among active playoff leaders at 45.3. The Devils have done an excellent job in terms of shot prevention even if their blueline lacks any names. What's more is that they've gotten a little production out of them. Salvador surprisingly has two goals and four assists; Zidlicky leads the blueliners with 29 shots on net along with a goal and an assist.
The Rangers definitely aren't scrubs, though. While they lean heavily on Girardi & McDonagh and Staal & Del Zotto and as much attention has been paid to their shot blocking, the Rangers are behind the Devils with a shots against per game average of 28.4. They're also just behind the Devils in SA/60 rate in 5-on-5 situations with 26.3 according to Behind the Net. Their SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations is also not bad at all at 49.9, though they're not right behind New Jersey among all active playoff teams. The main point is that the Rangers are quite good at shot prevention aside from their ability to block shots. John Tortorella has had the team trapping all season long and when the puck does get in their end, the defensemen tend to collapse in the slot to make it even harder for the opposition. What's more is that their blueline has contributed more offense. Stralman leads the blueline in goals with three, Del Zotto leads in points with eight, and four of their top five has over 20 shots on net - with Stralman just behind at 19. The Rangers can claim a superior success rate on the penalty kill - 82.6% to 73.9%; though the Devils showed their regular season PK form in the Philadelphia series more often than not.
Throw in the fact that both teams are good at backchecking and the defense alone makes one inclined to believe that this will be slugfest of a defensive series. The Devils' unheralded blueline needs to continue playing as they did; while the Rangers' defense needs to remain stout while undermanned. Whichever side that has a defenseman play poorly (e.g. Volchenkov) could end up paying for it with a loss. It can be that tight of a series.
One area the Devils have to their advantage is their forward depth. While it wasn't readily apparent in the Florida series, the Devils crushed the Flyers with offense from their first three lines. In terms of possession, the Devils have absolutely been crushing it in 5-on-5 play in the 2012 playoffs. As a team, according to Behind the Net, the Devils are clearly the better team in terms of Fenwick% in all categories except when up a goal or down by two. Those are the only situations where Rangers have been the superior team. Elsewhere, the advantage lies with New Jersey.
As a team, the Devils have averaged three goals per game and 32.3 shots per game, the highest among all active playoff teams according to NHL.com. As for 5-on-5 situations, the Devils have a SF/60 rate of 29.2, the highest among all active playoff teams according to Behind the Net. Their power play hasn't been too shabby either with a 20.9% conversion rate and a SF/60 of 58.1 - New Jersey leading all active playoff teams in both stats. We can say with a straight face that the Devils are the most offensive team among the final four teams in the 2012 NHL Playoffs.
|2012 Playoffs - Ilya Kovalchuk||11||5||7||12||-3||2||3||0||0||35||14.3|
|2012 Playoffs - Travis Zajac||12||5||5||10||1
|2012 Playoffs - Zach Parise||12||4
|2012 Playoffs - David Clarkson||12||2
|2012 Playoffs - Dainius Zubrus||12||3
|2012 Playoffs - Adam Henrique||12||2||5||7||6||6||0||0||1||21||9.5|
In terms of the particulars, the Devils have really scored and shot by committee so far in this year's playoffs. Only two forwards haven't averaged a shot per game: Ryan Carter (10 out of 11) and Tim Sestito (one game played, no shots). Ilya Kovalchuk leads the offense in points, power play goals, and assists; but as you can see from their top six in scoring, he's not blowing anyone away in goals - he's tied with Travis Zajac. In fact, everyone not named Sestito has a goal in these playoffs. That's not a bad thing - especially not for Kovalchuk, leading in playoff scoring is a good thing regardless - it just demonstrates the strength of the forwards. Zach Parise and Patrik Elias could use some better luck at shooting. It's not that big of a deal given how the other forwards have contributed. Even then Parise has been a shot-machine and Elias has been so strong in possession - especially against tough competition. Their time will come - hopefully very soon. Likewise, I hope everyone from Parise to Stephen Gionta are able to get rubber on net.
Like on defense, the Rangers aren't averse to offense either. OK, their possession numbers aren't nearly as good as New Jersey's. However, they do average 29.9 shots per game, and they're right behind New Jersey in 5-on-5 SF/60 with 28.1 according to Behind the Net. Their power play has been a bit of a disappointment as their 5-on-4 SF/60 rate is only 41.1 (third lowest among all sixteen playoff teams) and their conversion rate is just 15.8%. It's not as bad as Los Angeles, but it's not that good either. Nevertheless, the Rangers definitely have several players the Devils must be wary of on the ice.
|2012 Playoffs - Brad Richards||14||6||5||11||1||6
|2012 Playoffs - Marian Gaborik||14||4||6
|2012 Playoffs - Derek Stepan||14||1||7
|2012 Playoffs - Ryan Callahan||14||3
|2012 Playoffs - Artem Anisimov||14||2||4
Brad Richards became the latest in a long line of big contract signings by New York last summer. He's been proving his worth now. He not only leads his team in scoring but he leads the entire NHL in shots on net. Richards has been a constant threat in the 2012 playoffs; and I don't know whether it's going to be easy to shut him down like the Devils did to Claude Giroux. Especially since he's on the same line as Marian Gaborik, the Rangers' other main offensive force. It's a dynamic duo that has been supported on the wing by the fast and energetic Carl Hagelin. That first line alone could cause problems as a mix of speed and offensive skill. Beyond that, the returns don't look as impressive. Derek Stepan has provided a lot of helpers and his low shooting percentage suggests he's due for some scores. Ryan Callahan has been effective at both ends and he's been quite prolific at getting shots. Beyond those four, the shooting and production drops. While Artem Anisimov has six points, he's not even averaging a shot per game. Only Brian Boyle has more than 20 shots on net beyond the top four. Chris Kreider has an excellent on-ice Corsi rate but it's led to a whopping three points. Their depth hasn't been as productive as New Jersey and that could lie as the difference in this series if the Rangers' top guns can be contained. Whether or not they will be is another matter altogether.
Peter DeBoer did an excellent job in the Philadelphia series. He had the Devils play more in a 2-1-2 formation and the Flyers had no answer for their two-man forecheck. When the opposition coach uses timeout less than five minutes into a game at 0-0 after having two days to prepare and the team still suffers, then the gameplan is working as well as one could expect. John Tortorella is known for his grumpy and grouchy press conferences; but he's also been a very conservative coach in New York. The Rangers are more than happy to sit in a 1-2-2 and have his defensemen (and forwards) collapse down low and literally throw themselves into shooting lanes. Lundqvist, like most goaltenders, may be annoyed by not seeing the puck so much; but the results speak for themselves. Expect DeBoer to get more love from the media if only because he'll actually talk to them for a bit; but the coaching match-up will be a difficult one. A two-man forecheck worked wonders in the last round, but the Rangers' top four are much better than Philadelphia's and their team plays rather defensively. If it's not effectively early on, DeBoer will have to adjust and find something different to break Tortorella's tactics wide open.
What the Rangers Need to Do
The Rangers need to play like Lundqvist isn't going to bail them out over and over. Lundqvist is a fantastic goaltender. He's the second best goaltender in the world right now. However, leaning on your goaltender is simply playing with fire. After all, the Rangers had to dispose of Ottawa and Washington in seven games - it's not exactly a guaranteed success. The Rangers must do what they can to get more goals to support their goaltender. This way if/when he has a poor game, it's not going to sink the team. Besides, it's a lot easier to defend two or three goal leads than one goal leads. They have the speed, they just need to use it more than just on the counter-attack.
What the Devils Need to Do
Play the Rangers like they did against the Flyers - with composure and with an strong effort from everyone. While the Rangers have a superior defense and goaltender; the Devils aren't going to get anywhere in this series if they get mad, take stupid penalties, and only part of the team shows up to attack and/or defend. The Devils dropped Philly in four straight games after a Game 1 loss because they swarmed their opponent as a team, they collectively cut down on the number of penalties, and dominated in possession. When all four lines are clicking and all three defensive pairings are doing their job calmly, it's hard to falter. The Devils will need to keep up the attack if they want to have any hope against a fantastic goaltender in what will likely be a tight series. One more thing, it wouldn't hurt if they can be more judicious with their shots. The Rangers skaters have been willing to put themselves in danger to block shots. A blocked shot doesn't get in the net. Taking an extra second to get around the block would be beneficial.
You've read the series primer, you've read our series predictions; and now you've read this series preview. Now it's your turn to have your say about this series prior to it's start on Monday. What do you make of the Rangers' defense? Will they continue to lean on their top four guys and succeed more than the Devils' leaning on their top four? Can Henrik Lundqvist be cracked or will the Devils need to throw everything and the kitchen sink against him to score multiple goals? Will the Devils forwards continue to dominate possession at evens and swarm it up? If the forecheck doesn't succeed, what should Peter DeBoer do instead? Will both teams stay relatively disciplined and keep the series at 5-on-5? What do you think will happen? Please leave all of your answers and other thoughts about the Eastern Conference Finals in the comments. Thank you for reading.