For the first time in 15 years, the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers will meet for (almost) all the marbles when they begin the 2012 Eastern Conference Final tonight at a partially-refurbished Madison Square Garden.
Almost everyone from that second-round meeting in 1997 won by the Rangers in five games, and the memorable seven-game 1994 Eastern Conference Final taken by New York in seven-plus contests, is long since retired, save for Devils still-starting goaltender Martin Brodeur.
The Rangers also edged the Devils in seven games in the first round in 1992 in the two teams' first Stanley Cup playoff encounter. Then, they beat them again in five games in 2008, following a sweep by New Jersey two years prior, both of these meetings also occurring in the opening round.
The Rangers were pretty much expected to make it this far this year after earning the East's top seed while the sixth-seeded Devils haven’t lasted past two rounds since they last won their last Cup in 2003. Although a lot has changed since 1994, including New Jersey's home arena, here's five things the upstart Devils must do to win this latest incarnation of the Lincoln Tunnel Tangle.
1) Pepper Lundqvist. There's no doubt that Henrik Lundqvist will be the best goaltender the Devils have faced so far in these playoffs. He's only human though and can get tired, especially after backstopping New York through a pair of grueling seven-game series already versus Ottawa and Washington.
Who will Win the Eastern Conference Final?
Getting six or seven shots per period isn't going to cut it against the King. The Devils, including Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and even the fourth-liners, need to storm the net like they did in ousting Philadelphia—they need to get in front and set up screens, shoot from almost anywhere in the offensive zone where the opportunity presents itself, and get goals off deflections and rebounds.
2) Stay out of the penalty box. The Devils were nearly undone in the first round against Florida when they surrendered nine power-play goals in seven games to the Panthers. They did a better job of staying out of the box against the Flyers and will have to continue to do so against the cross-river rival Rangers. Giving players like Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan extra time and ice to work with is just asking for trouble.
3) Play physical and control the boards. The Capitals didn't do a good job of playing the boards against the Rangers, and their season is over. The Devils conversely played very well along the wall against Philadelphia and ended the Flyers' playoff campaign. They'll have to continue to grind out it out along the boards against the Rangers forwards and defenseman, punishing them and wearing them out.
Defensemen like Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador need to lead the way from the blue line, and forwards like David Clarkson and Ryan Carter have to take charge up front. New York itself though has played a grittier style this season than in years past. It could very well come down to who wins the battle of the boards. That, along with this next part...
4) Get good goaltending. It sounds simple, but this one is also paramount. Brodeur doesn't necessarily have to be spectacular in net, but he does have to be solid especially since Lundqvist will be the glue holding the Rangers together defensively. New Jersey can't unload on Lundqvist at one end, get nothing to show on the scoreboard for its efforts, and then have the Rangers skate down the other way and score on their first shot. Brodeur, 40, may not be able to steal games by his lonesome anymore, but he's still going to have to play well in this series if the Devils are going to advance.
5) Win at home. The Rangers may have home-ice advantage (and the last line change) in four of the possible seven games this series. The Devils will have to win at least once at MSG, but they can make their task simpler by winning at the Prudential Center in Newark, as they did against the Flyers.
Playoff tickets at the Rock for the semifinals sold out in mere minutes, and the Devils have to hope their fans indeed "Rock the Red" in a place that, like the Meadowlands, has too often seen too many Blueshirts sitting in the stands. Winning at home, especially in the playoffs, could help New Jersey change at least some of that.
It all gets underway tonight from Manhattan at 8 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network. If the Devils play disciplined and focused like they did against Philadelphia, they'll win in six games.