NHL Playoffs: Who Has the Advantage in the Devils-Rangers Series?

Robert TheodorsonSenior Analyst IMay 14, 2012

NHL Playoffs: Who Has the Advantage in the Devils-Rangers Series?

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    One of the NHL's biggest and best rivalries kicks off in the form of an Eastern Conference Championship Monday night.

    The East's top-seeded New York Rangers are fresh off of a Game 7 win against the Washington Capitals.

    The sixth-seeded Devils finished off the heavily favored Philadelphia Flyers in only five games to earn a well deserved few days' rest.

    The regular season saw the division rivals face off six times with the series split dead even at 3-3.

    Vezina and Hart Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist leads his team into Madison Square Garden to take on the visiting New Jersey Devils who are backstopped by three time Cup winner Martin Brodeur.

    Ilya Kovalchuk and Brad Richards lead their respective teams in points. While Kovalchuk holds the slight edge in points by a 12-11 mark, it is Brad Richards who is the East's top scorer with six goals, edging out both Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac who have five.

Top Six Forwards

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    Advantage: Devils

    Not to take away from the Hagelin-Richards-Gaborik line, but the Devils have all the depth here as well as the better overall players.

    Before I get started on the Devils, we have to give kudos to Brad Richards who is playing like it's 2004 when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Tampa Bay Lightning under his past and current coach, John Tortorella.

    Ever since Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk were split up and given their own lines, the Devils have been downright amazing on offense.

    During the Florida Panthers series it looked like Kovy was dogging it out on the ice, reverting back to his one playoff series while with the Atlanta Thrashers.

    That was not the case.

    After giving the Russian sniper one game and a few days off, the Devils superstar came roaring back and is now being mentioned in playoff MVP talks.

    What can we say about Zach Parise that everybody doesn't already know?

    One thing that impresses me more than anything about the captain is his extremely aggressive forecheck. Parise chases any opposing player around the ice like a rabid dog going after a squirrel. Zach gives 100 percent every shift and is leading by example—the fact that he can fill a huge scoring need on a different line than Kovalchuk gives the Devils serious scoring opportunities.

    This is all without mentioning playoff hero Travis Zajac. The big center has arguably done more for the team than anyone else. Zajac was a hero against the Florida Panthers and kept up his dominating play all the way through the Philadelphia Series.

    I'll take the skill and experience of Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora over any of the Rangers' non-first line players any day.

Bottom Six Forwards

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    Advantage: Devils

    While his brother is watching the game from home, Brian Gionta's little brother Stephen is making a name for himself with the New Jersey Devils.

    The tiny forward, who is the younger brother of former long time Devil and now Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta, is contributing in big ways.

    Steve Bernier has revived his career and might have found a home in New Jersey. The big power forward is using his size and skill to bully opposing players, forcing them to succumb to his will along the boards.

    Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Henrique, who scored the overtime series winning goal against the Panthers, continues to be a huge success. The young center has certainly made his presence known, and Devils fans everywhere are seeing an example of great things to come for many years down the road.

    David Clarkson is due for a big game or two in this series after a great regular season. The tough and gritty winger acts as the team's tough guy and best chance at scoring down the ranks at the same time.

    All these guys have come up huge for the Devils, but it is Dainius Zubrus above all others who I am most impressed with on the entire team. The huge former first round pick from Lithuania has been absolutely dominating throughout the playoffs.

    Zubrus had jumped around from team to team before joining the Devils, but is now showing exactly why he deserved the big long-term contract that he was signed to.

    It's hard to miss Zubrus when he's on the ice. The big guy will hit anyone he sees, win every battle he goes in for, and scores when he wants to.


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    Advantage: Draw

    You've got to respect the way the Rangers clamped down hard on the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals. The top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh has been impressive as they have been all season, leading the Rangers to the East's top seeding.

    Whenever you have Marc Staal available to play on either the second or third pairing, that's a very good thing. Staal is turning into a dominating player and continuing the success of the Staal name.

    Meanwhile in New Jersey, it's becoming apparent to anyone who's watched even a single game that the Devils are relying heavily upon mid-season acquisition Marek Zidlicky.

    The old defensemen and personal friend of Patrik Elias was brought in to become the Devils' primary offensive defensemen and power play quarterback. Not only is Zidlicky great at moving the puck, but he's playing very responsibly in his own zone as well.

    Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador have been the definition of a shut down pairing. The two big men intimidate any forwards who dare come across their paths. Both excel at knocking down their opponents and making life as hard as possible on anyone who has the puck on their stick.

    Both systems are designed to nullify opposing scoring lines when the team is ahead on the scoresheet. It would have been fun to see if the Rangers could have shut down a non-neutered Capitals' offense, but we will never know. The Devils struggled against the Panthers but took down an offensive giant in the Philadelphia Flyers in five games.

    For these reason I see no edge to either side in a very balanced matchup.


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    Advantage: Rangers

    Marty Brodeur has been awesome thus far, but it would be unfair and downright stupid to not give the edge to Vezina and Hart Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist.

    The King has allowed far less than two goals a game in the playoffs, and with a healthy save percentage, he is outdone by Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick, who seem to be in brick wall mode every single night, but we can't hold that against Henrik.

    Both teams' defenses have been trying to make life easy on their goaltenders but if there's a penalty shot or odd man rush situation, I'd feel more comfortable with Lundqvist every time.

    Get ready for the old "rust versus rest" argument tonight. Analysts will go back and forth as to who has the advantage. Forty-year-old Martin Brodeur got a few days off after the Devils polished off the Flyers in five games. Meanwhile, the Rangers have had no rest after beating the Capitals in a Game 7 on Saturday night.

    Rest is nice for Brodeur, but he's a three time champion looking for his forth cup and he has more mental fortitude than the three remaining goalies combined.

    As for Lundqvist, he will take going into the Conference Finals with momentum as a positive. Keep the goalie hot, it's never a bad thing.


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    Advantage: Rangers

    If Torts didn't have a ring from his time in Tampa, this matchup would be dead even.

    Devils' bench boss Peter DeBoer got revenge on the team that fired him in the first round, and then devised his team's game plan to perfection against the heavily favored Flyers.

    Both coaches who used to call the Sunshine State home now find themselves as crosstown rivals.

    In a New York-New Jersey rivalry that sounds like a plot right out of the Sopranos, there can only be one big boss.

    This is Tortorella's second time in the Conference championship and DeBoer's first time just being in the playoffs.

    When it comes to coaching, you have to give experience the edge; however I will note that there have been some great upsets such as Dale Hunter over Claude Julien and Darryl Sutter over Alain Vigneault and Ken Hitchcock.