The 2013-14 regular season rivalry ends today in the Bronx.
The Time: 12:30 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - NBC; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Friday night, the New Jersey Devils hosted the Washington Capitals. The Caps were winless in six and the Devils saw to it to extend that streak. Early on, Stephen Gionta took advantage of a miscue by Dmitry Orlov in the Devils' zone. Gionta got it up to Jaromir Jagr, who laid it off for Gionta. Gionta ended up being one-on-one with Michal Neuvirth as Gionta's teammate was covered. Gionta fired a shot that went off the goalie and in for an early goal. The Caps tried to get back into it but the Devils pushed more for a second goal. They would get it with an early second period power play. After multiple failures to even have the puck in the Caps' end for more than a few seconds, they actually carried the puck in. Travis Zajac moved it up to Jagr, who made a surgical pass across the slot to Adam Henrique, who finished the play. Down two goals, the Caps managed to attack more often as the Devils' defensive coverage was lacking in the middle. But Cory Schneider came to save the day in nearly all occasions. Schneider was finally beaten in the third period when Jason Chimera re-directed a shot by John Erskine. It made the game closer on the scoreboard, but Schneider continued to bail out his teammates. The Devils held on to win 2-1. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Rangers Game: Thursday night featured the Rangers hosting the St. Louis Blues. The Rangers were up for this one as they ended up out-shooting the Blues in the first two periods and matched them in shots in the third. However, both Jaroslav Halak and Henrik Lundqvist were on their games tonight. Both made plenty of important saves. As such, it was a low-scoring affair. Alex Steen struck first as he simply can't stop scoring this season. Jaden Schwartz found him cutting to the net and Steen managed to sneak it under Lundqvist and just over the goal line in the first period. The Rangers would respond in a 16-shot second period effort. Rick Nash hammered a one-timer from the right circle to tie up the game in the second. However, the Blues sharpened up in their own end and would provide the difference maker in the third. Kevin Shattenkirk launched a screamer of a one-timer from the right point that beat all the traffic and Lundqvist. That converted a power play and put up St. Louis 2-1, which held up by the end of regulation. Bryan Winters explained how the Blues shutdown the Rangers in his recap at Blueshirt Banter.
The Last Devils-Rangers Game: Back on December 7, the Devils were winless in three, they were coming off a depressingly bad game against Detroit, and had to head into Rangerstown to play the Rangers. It looked grim early on when Brad Richards scored early in the game and Mats Zuccarello pounded in a long rebound past Martin Brodeur within the first minute of the second. However, the Devils would respond from the most unlikely of players: Cam Janssen. Tim Sestito shot for a rebound and a falling Janssen managed to properly re-direct the puck into the net. That got on the board. Less controversial was Travis Zajac lifting up a puck past Henrik Lundqvist off a rebound to it up at 2-2 in the third period. Michael Ryder made a magnificent move to make John Moore look silly and beat Lundqvist through his legs with just over four minutes left in regulation. Yet, the Rangers would get one back late. After Zajac took a penalty for a delay of game, the Rangers went into a 6-on-4 situation and got the late equalizer from Chris Kreider among several bodies. Fortunately, Ryan Callahan topped the Zajac call by high-sticking Andy Greene early in overtime. Blood was drawn, four minutes was issued, and the Devils only needed thirteen seconds. Jagr passed the puck to Eric Gelinas, who ended the game with the authority that can only come from The Truth. The Devils won 4-3 in OT. My recap of the game is here.
The Bigger Picture Preview: Want something more heartfelt than game specific? Then you might want to check out what I wrote about the Stadium Series game yesterday.
Also: Neil Keefe of WFAN and CBS New York asked me some questions about the Devils' season and this game. You can read my answers over at Keefe to the City.
The Goal: A more consistent attack is desirable when tied and necessary with or without a lead. The New Jersey Devils managed to score a whole lot of goals against St. Louis and Schneider was brilliant against Washington. In both games, the Devils went for long stretches without registering a shot on net or even an unblocked attempt. It's one thing to have a shift or two go awry. It's another when there's little offense for minutes at a time. The Rangers have not been a high scoring team, but they are very good at generating shots. Going into this game, they're fourth in the NHL with an average of 32.5 shots per game. They don't need to be given more opportunites to keep attacking if the Devils can help it. Should the Devils go down in the game, they'll need to hit back to get back on the scoreboard. Should they go up, then they must keep them honest. Giving any team portions of a period or so where they don't have to defend is very risky. It could burn them today if they aren't careful.
Should Be Cory: The big question for the Devils going into this game would be who would start. Cory Schneider has been fantastic in January with an overall save percentage of 96% in his seven starts. He is not starting this game. Martin Brodeur, with four starts this month and an overall save percentage of 89% among them, will be in net. Tom Gulitti has confirmed this at Fire & Ice yesterday.
It's not that he can't have a good game. Montreal fans, for example, know Brodeur can still have a great performance on a big stage. But this game has real meaning in the standings. Schneider has been hotter, better, and active as of late. It would not have been my decision to have Brodeur, who hasn't started in eight days, start ahead of him. Sentimentality played a big role for this one. While that has it's place and makes a good story, I'd rather have the better goaltender in net against a hated rival to try and win an important regular season game. That being said, I hope my concerns are unfounded and/or Mike isn't writing "Cory should have started this one" in the recap tomorrow.
An Old Face as a New Winger: After trying out Reid Boucher and Joe Whitney, the unit of Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac will get a new winger. You may have heard of him: it's Jacob Josefson. Gulitti reported that Whitney has been re-assigned to Albany. I'm fine with that. In his NHL debut, he didn't really do much on the ice that suggested he should remain there for long. Josefson is likely itching at another chance to stay in the Devils lineup. At least, he should be excited for this opportunity. I'm hoping he provides a few shots and makes a few plays with Zajac and Jagr to help them out.
Personally, I'm a little surprised that Peter DeBoer isn't putting Dainius Zubrus back with Zajac and Jagr for this one. It's not like Zubrus did well with Patrik Elias and Damien Brunner against Washington. Zubrus with Zajac and Jagr were very good in the last Rangers game. Given how strong the Rangers are in terms of possession, having a top possession unit can help the Devils' cause in that area. On top of that, with the Newfoundline (a.k.a. Adam Henrique, Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder) playing as well as they have been recently, DeBoer could shelter a potential line of Josefson, Brunner, and Elias as needed. But we'll see. Maybe the Elias line will have a more notable game. Maybe Josefson will come out flying and do some damage.
Defensively Same: Given the pairings Gulitti had in practice, I do not expect any changes on defense. Eric Gelinas and The Truth will be in this one. I hope he's able to utilize his shot more today while making some better decisions in his own end. I don't want to see him leave opposing players to join Anton Volchenkov pinning his man against the boards, for example.
Similarly, I'm a little cautious for Marek Zidlicky. In addition to his usual, gambling way with the puck, he's taken a lot of penalties this season. A stick foul from #2 is not uncommon. The Rangers have a potent power play unit. Their conversion rate is above 20% (20.7% to be exact) and their 37 power play goals comprise of over a quarter of their total goals scored this season (129). As strong as the Devils' penalty kill has been, they can shoot themselves in the foot if they get pinned back or make a bad decision and take a call. This applies across the whole blueline, but I call out Zidlicky specifically since he's a top-twenty player in minor penalties.
Lastly, I hope the Devils as a whole play tighter in the neutral zone and the middle of the rink. That's not just a defenseman issue, but it lies also on the forwards. The players have to do a better job communicating where one needs to be and when one needs help on their blindside. They also have to be more careful with the puck. They had those issues against the Caps, which helped them get to 31 shots and nearly getting something out of the game. They can ill afford them in what will likely be a close game since the Devils and Rangers aren't scoring machines.
The Blueshirts to Know: First and foremost is their King Without Title, Henrik Lundqvist. While he's clearly the Rangers' starter (I can't imagine he wouldn't start this one), his season could be going a bit better. His overall save percentage is only 91.5%, though he has a healthy 92.3% save percentage at evens. He gave up a pretty ugly goal to Steen on Thursday; I wonder if he's been caught out badly more than most. In every game against the Devils, he's let up a goal he'd wish he would have back. Then again, that may be my own confirmation bias and wishes that he concedes soft goals more often. It would be nice if he had another error today, but that can never be guaranteed. Lundqvist is very talented and is capable of holding it down if/when his team can only give him a handful of goals to work with. (That last sentence seems familiar.)
Second, Rick Nash has been a force for the blueshirts. While the Rangers have plenty of forwards who have contributed plenty this season, Nash is my biggest concern. When he's got a head of steam, he's really difficult to stop. When he charges to the net, very little can be done to deter him. When he's got space to shoot, he can fire the puck with the best of them. Nash has only played 36 games this season, but he leads the Rangers with 17 goals and is second on the team with 148 shots. All that and he's been hot with a four-game goal streak where he's scored six goals. I would argue that DeBoer should try to get Andy Greene and Mark Fayne against him and his line as much as he could. It's not like his linemates aren't notable as they are Derek Stepan (9 goals, 23 assists) and Chris Kreider (13 goals, 17 assists, playing like an actual top six forward, and surprisingly has 60 PIM).
Third, the Brad Richards Renaissance continues. Richards is the team leader in points (38) and shots (174). He's been more than just a distributor. If the Nash-Stepan-Kreider unit can't get going, then he could very well lead the way. He's got a very fast Carl Hagelin on one wing and a solid Ryan Callahan on the other. Whoever draws that line among match-ups better be prepared for quickness and plenty of creative passes.
Fourth, Mats Zuccarello could very well be an X-factor. He wasn't in the top six against St. Louis but he's definitely been making an impact for the Rangers this season. Zuccarello is actually second on the team in scoring with thirteen goals and twenty-two assists. He's a sparkplug of a forward and could provide issues among the bottom six if he stays there. Alternatively, if Alain Vigneault doesn't think someone's doing well up top, then he could move Zuccarello up.
Fifth, Ryan McDonagh will lead the blueline. He's the team leader in minutes per game played and he's been very active on offense. McDonagh has seven goals and twenty-two assists with 117 shots. No other Rangers defenseman has been nearly as productive as him this season. As cool as it was to see Jagr make him look silly behind the net back in December, he plays a very sound positional game and makes very good decisions. He's an Olympic-worthy defender. Whoever gets to face him at evens will have a challenge. Fortunately for the Devils, they have more than one effective unit for this game. The Henrique line has been playing well; and Elias and Brunner have returned. It all doesn't have to lie on hoping Jagr can post him and his partner (usually Dan Girardi) up again and again.
About that Rangers Trade: I understand Michael Del Zotto was in the doghouse. I'm not sure that trading him for a defensive defenseman with a fairly long deal was all that smart. The Rangers have been OK in terms of shot prevention. I don't think they're that much better or worse off, really. Kevin Klein will likely be on the third pairing with John Moore.
What's At Stake: I'll do a Division Snapshot separate from this post; it may not happen until Sunday night. But a Devils win puts them tied with the Rangers. That might mean a playoff spot depending on what the other teams do. It also gives the Devils a three game winning streak, which would be very nice for a change.
One Last Reminder: It may be in New York City, but the Devils are the home team. DeBoer will have the last change. It remains to be seen how big of an effect that will be, but keep that bit of information in the back of your mind when you see the Devils coming out later on faceoffs.
Your Take: This game will certainly be an experience. I'll be there in Section 133. Mike will be covering the game. Will you be at Yankee Stadium? What are your feelings about Brodeur starting this one over Schneider? How do you think the Devils will match-up with the Rangers? Who among the Devils skaters has to have a big game today? Will the Devils sweep the season series against the Rangers? Thanks to Gulitti, NHL.com and Left Wing Lock for stats and line combinations, respectively. Thank you for reading.