Sunday, May 13, 2012

Devils-Rangers may be one Mother of a series

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Though the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers have faced each other in the postseason five times previously, the Eastern Conference Finals matchup that looms ahead as the sixth marks just the second time that something other than mere bragging rights are on the line.

Back in 1994, both clubs found themselves on the cusp of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and the resulting validation as legitimate winners.

The Devils, under the guidance of first-year head coach Jacques Lemaire, played second banana to the Blueshirts in the Atlantic Division all year. Their 47 wins, 106 points and 306 goals for were all franchise records but they had yet to get over the hump, having only once before reached the semifinals (in 1988 as a last-minute playoff club and heavy underdog to Boston despite two shocking series wins over the Islanders and Capitals).

The Rangers, under the brief regime of Mike Keenan, carried with them the pressure of having blown a charmed year two seasons ago and the ever-present ghosts of the franchise's last championship, the infamous 1940. New York claimed its third division title in five years, but that year's model looked to be a world-beater, thanks to a franchise-best 52 wins and 112 points.

What transpired was one of the all-timers.

Seven games. Three decided in double-overtime, including the terminal contest at Madison Square Garden. Martin Brodeur's introduction to playoff pressure. Bernie Nicholls' short-handed spree. Stephane Matteau's first 2-OT winner in Game 3. Mark Messier's Game 6 guarantee that came to fruition. Valeri Zelepukin playing "Beat the Clock" followed by MATTEAU! MATTTEAU! MATTEAU! in Game 7.

This year's battle for Hudson River supremacy has none of the sexy elements of that memorable series 18 years back. Even Jersey's head coach had a fairly even-handed answer for Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger:

"Anybody who coaches or plays wants to play your main rival in this situation. I don't think it gets any better than that," said Peter DeBoer. "That's the type of environment you want to play in, so I think we're very excited that we'll get an opportunity at the best team in the Eastern Conference. They had the most points. We're going to throw our best at them and see if it's good enough."

And Rangers head coach John Tortorella threw in the idea that his team has its collective eyes on a bigger goal than simply beating their rivals:

"We are still in the process of trying to become one of the elite teams. To be able to play two game sevens in the first two rounds, for a young group of guys it’s a tremendous experience. This is where your legacy is made, in playoffs," the Stanley Cup-winning boss said to SNY on Saturday night.

During the regular season, the Atlantic Division winners and top overall seed averaged roughly 2.75 goals for and 2.28 goals against. The fourth-place club -- only seven points back -- managed similar numbers offensively but yielded slightly more, just over 2.5 goals per game.

In the postseason, the Rangers have scored a whopping 29 times, and the Devils have come up with a relatively-profuse 36 in two fewer games. 

But it does have two things in common on the ground: the bad blood between neighbors, and Brodeur's still alive and kicking.

Lest we forget the all-out line brawl at the drop of the puck in mid-March:

Brodeur, now 40, is entering his fifth series against the club which occupies the renovated enclosure above Penn Station, but has won only once -- a shocking four-game sweep in the 2006 first round. It would be a sweet and honorable thing if, in his final NHL season, he crossed New York off his list of enemies vanquished one more time.

His counterpart is Henrik Lundqvist, a full decade younger. The Swede enjoyed the best season of his career, and, as a double-barrel Hart and Vezina finalist, wants nothing more than to keep going.

Brodeur outlasted his heroic one-time opponent in Mike Richter, so for the "King" to send Marty packing will be some razor-sharp poetic justice. This is Lundqvist's first trip past the second round in seven North American campaigns.

So, of course, the presumptive Hall-of-Famer laid it on thick in the Star-Ledger:  "He's a Vezina candidate. He's unbelievable. He's kind of the top goalie in the NHL right now. And I think I was in that position once. I played against Patrick (Roy) and Dominik Hasek. I played against all the guys during maybe the top years in their careers."

One thing decidedly not in New York's favor is this: since the expansion of the playoffs to best-of-seven for all four rounds in 1987, no team has ever advanced to the Finals after playing the maximum 14 games through the first two.

That formula spelled doom for the 1993 Maple Leafs and 2002 Colorado Avalanche, who share the NHL record for playing 21 postseason contests without reaching the title round.

One thing not on New Jersey's side is the fact that their five-game dispatch of the Philadelphia Flyers, ending last Tuesday, left it with six days off between rounds. The Orange and Black enjoyed five days off after beating Pittsburgh and the Devils appeared to be the fresher team throughout.

While the merits of rest vs. momentum in a short break will be debated endlessly, it works in the Rangers' favor to have a Game 7 at home followed by a Game 1 in the following series two days later on friendly ice.

“You play so hard for each other, nobody gets tired," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh told the New York Times' Dave Caldwell after a 2-1 win over Washington in Game 7.

No matter what's written about past, present and future, ultimately it's up to the players to make it happen. The madness begins on 33rd and 8th tomorrow night.

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