In contrast to the Western Conference Finals, the Eastern Conference Finals features two teams that are very different in both makeup and style. The New York Rangers were front runners for the majority of the season while the Devils floated around in the middle of the pack. The Rangers became 24/7 darlings while the Devils were rarely a topic of national media conversation. Behind the bench, one coach is known for his edgy personality, the other coach is largely unknown. One has the goaltender once known as the best, the other the goaltender currently known as the best. And on and on
Like anything else, it's the differences between these two teams that make the series fascinating.
The Rangers were a far superior team in terms of 5-on-5 ranking, sixth in the NHL in terms of goals for vs. against ratio. The Devils were 19th in the league in that category.
New York offense vs. New Jersey defense
New York offense: +2.8 GVT (12th in NHL)
New Jersey defense: +19.9 GVT (4th in NHL)
New Jersey goaltending: -4.8 GVT (21st in NHL)
Total: New York, -12.3 GVT
What we've learned from playoffs past is that it's not about who you were but who you are now (just look at the Kings!), and in the Rangers' case, for most of the year, Brad Richards was somewhat of an underachiever. That has not been the case during the playoffs. While we don't always buy into "clutch" (see: Fleury, Marc-Andre), Richards has a track record that he's living up to this postseason. He's netted 11 points in 14 games, only a touch off his 2004 playoff pace of 26 points in 23 games, and four of his six goals have been 5-on-5.
Richards' resurgence, combined with the depth added by Chris Kreider, makes the Rangers a more dangerous 5-on-5 team than they were during the regular season. That takes them from very good to excellent at even strength. While their offense may not put up crazy numbers, they are deep with players who are both physical and can score such as Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan, and Brian Boyle. Their size and space-creating abilities are impressive, but they are not a puck possession team, ranking 14th in the NHL in Fenwick Close. They cause turnovers with physical play and have players like Richards and Marian Gaborik who can finish.
On the Devils' side, the goaltending GVT can be misleading. While Martin Brodeur was well below average for the regular season (.908 save percentage), he has been much stronger in the playoffs posting a .920 save percentage. In 5-on-5 situations, he's been close to flawless, with a .947 save percentage. Certainly, you have to ask whether he can continue to perform at such an impressive level, but as GVT indicates, if he does fade, it will not be because of his defense or coach.
Pete DeBoer may not write home about the Devils' seven-game series against the Florida Panthers in the first round, but his strategy against the Philadelphia Flyers qualifies as nothing short of brilliant. He used skilled two-way forwards to constantly pressure the Flyers in their own zone. The trap is no more in New Jerseyinstead, DeBoer had two forwards buzzing Philadelphia's defensemen, who often struggled to move the puck through center ice. We can't be sure that will be his strategy against New York, but we can be sure he'll be able to adjust on the fly. Give the Devils' defense and goalie the edge against the Rangers' offense.
Advantage: New Jersey Devils
New Jersey offense vs. New York defense
New Jersey offense: -2.2 GVT (15th in NHL)
New York defense: +20.1 GVT (4rd in NHL)
New York goaltending: +17.0 GVT (5th in NHL)
Total: New Jersey, -24.9 GVT
This matchup is about star power. With Ilya Kovalchuk playing Conn Smythe-caliber hockey, Zach Parise shooting like crazy on one side, and Marc Staal healthy and Henrik Lundqvist at the top of his game on the other side, we will see pure skill vs. skill.
Kovalchuk was highly criticized in the first round, but it appeared after giving his injury (whatever it was) time to heal, he's back to top form, scoring 12 points in 11 games. Parise has added eight points, is a plus-6 and has shot an incredible 51 times in 12 games. In addition to their All Stars, Travis Zajac's additional scoring along with his impressive 58.4% faceoff wins, young Adam Henrique's carryover from an excellent rookie season, and David Clarkson's Lucic-like mix of scoring and fighting have given the Devils a scary group of offensive weapons. Their secondary scoring from Dainius Zubrus, Petr Sykora, and even Stephen Gionta has been a welcome surprise as well.
As for the Rangers, their two-way forwards and deep defensive coreled by one of the league's best in Staalwill make for a formidable opponent for New Jersey's up-front talent. New Jersey will have to find an answer for New York's ability to force teams into prolonged physical battles along the boards and capability to keep quality shots away from Lundqvist. While Staal is the leader of the D, the Rangers run out top caliber D-men including Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto, and Anton Stralman.
And then there's King Henry, whose resume reads: Vezina Trophy and Hart Trophy finalist and .937 save percentage during this year's playoffs. Lundqvist is as good as it gets in the NHL amongst netminders. The only question is if he'll hit a bump in the road as has happened at times in the past. While it may not have been the case this year, he's been inconsistent in the past, posting back-to-back mediocre playoff performances in 2008 and 2009. But that seems unlikely considering his play for most of the season.
Advantage: New York Rangers
New York Power Play vs. New Jersey Penalty Kill
New York Power Play: -2.1 GVT (20th in NHL)
New Jersey Penalty Kill: +27.0 GVT (1st in NHL)
Total: New York, -24.9 GVT
The regular season numbers for the Devils suggest they should be a lot better than their 73.9% penalty kill so far during the playoffs. The Rangers' miserable power play should help New Jersey rise back toward their regular season percentage of 89.6, which was the best in the NHL. The Rangers are currently scoring at a mediocre 15.8% clip, nearly dead on with their regular season 15.7%. The only chance New York may have here is if Brodeur struggles on the PK. Outside of goalie error, New Jersey should have a huge advantage here.
Advantage: New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Power Play vs. New York Penalty Kill
New Jersey Power Play: -7.2 GVT
New York Penalty Kill: +11.1 GVT
Total: New Jersey, -18.3 GVT
During the playoffs, the New Jersey Devils have played exceptionally well on the power play, scoring on 20.9% of man-advantage situations. Their regular season numbers were a few percent lower (17.1%) and they ranked 14th in the NHL. Kovalchuk's presenceand wrist shoton nearly every minute of the power play make the Devils a threat to score.
But the Rangers are an exceptional penalty killing team. Their two top PK defenseman, McDonagh and Girardi, posted exceptional on-ice save percentages and more than three minutes per 60 time on ice. New York also mixes in a strong group of forwards, giving near equal time to Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust, Boyle, Callahan, Stepan, and Brandon Dubinsky, who are all either above-average or capable penalty killers.
Advantage: New York Rangers
Dec. 20: Rangers 4, Devils 1
Jan. 31: Devils 4, Rangers 3 (SO)
Feb. 7: Devils 1, Rangers 0
Feb. 27: Rangers 2, Devils 0
Mar. 6: Devils 4, Rangers 1
Mar. 19: Rangers 4, Devils 2
Total: Rangers 3-2-1, Devils 3-3-0
Goals: Devils 12, Rangers 11
Doesn't get much closer than that.
Injuries and intangibles
Neither team has an injury that will play too much into the final result, but it appears Brandon Dubinsky will be a question mark for the Rangers.
As far as intangibles go, look behind both benches. John Tortorella is a brilliant player motivator who has constantly pushed this Rangers team to win two Game 7s. On the other side is DeBoer, whose adjustments midway through the Flyers series helped his team to the East's most surprising upset.
On the ice, the Devils refused to play the Flyers bully game. The Rangers do the same stuff, starting extra pushing, shoving, and fighting after whistles. Expect the Devils to just skate away as they did in Round 2.
New York Rangers: +39.0 GVT
New Jersey Devils: +19.0 GVT
Total difference: Rangers, +20.0 GVT
While Tortorella does not buy into the fact that playing two seven-game series may have worn down his team, how could it possibly not have? The Devils' rest could help close the 20.0 GVT advantage for the Rangers. And with Brodeur playing like it's 2003 and Kovalchuk starring, New Jersey should be closer than they look by the overall regular season numbers. Also considering the season series being separated by only one goal, this one could be a classic.
Rangers in seven
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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