When I look at this matchup between New Jersey and New York in the Eastern Conference Finals, there's one thing that clearly sticks out to me: One of these teams was supposed to be going into the third round and one was not.
Anyone who has watched hockey this season knows which one is which, and I for one am unbelievably impressed that the Devils have gotten this far, especially considering how they played against Florida. After going seven games in the first round, I didn't think they had a hope of beating the Flyers, but the Devils didn't just beat them -- they dominated them. I'm very impressed by New Jersey and if you told me they could beat Philly without Marty Brodeur being unbelievable, I'd have laughed at you. Marty didn't have to be unbelievable. The Devils are just peaking at the right time and getting better and better. Against Philadelphia the Devils were great everywhere on the ice -- their six-man defensive unit was great, and their stars played great. Ilya Kovalchuk is playing some of the best hockey he's ever played, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias are great just like you'd expect them to be, but Petr Sykora's playing well, Travis Zajac is fired up and David Clarkson looks good.
The Devils are just awesome right now. The style of play is great -- it's an aggressive style, but you give up nothing. Right now they might be the most aggressive forechecking team of the four teams left, and they're definitely more aggressive than the Rangers. This team is fun to watch, playing great and generally a total departure from what the New Jersey Devils used to be.
That said, however, if the Rangers play in this series like they did Saturday in Game 7 against Washington, I don't think the Devils can beat them. That game I just sat back and watched and it was darn near perfection. The forwards were awesome, there was no space for Washington, the Capitals had no time to make plays and the Rangers won all the physical battles. The defense joined the rush and was great in its own end, the first pass most of the night was right on, and when there was a breakdown -- which was very rare -- Henrik Lundqvist made the saves. It was their best game of the playoffs and by far the most impressed I've been with them all playoffs. If they can string together a number of these games, it will cause a lot of problems for the Devils. They were great Saturday. I just sat, watched and thought, "This is how hockey should be played."
Most importantly, you knew it was good because Rangers coach John Tortorella actually was sort of happy at his press conference at the end of the game.
I like the Rangers to keep playing like this and win the series in six games, but there definitely are some things you need to watch out for if you're New York and New Jersey. Perhaps most importantly, the Rangers scored very early in Game 7 against Washington and that allowed them to sit back and play defense the rest of the game. Any team that's great defensively wants to score first. How many times have we seen New Jersey win the Stanley Cup with that same premise over the years? Dallas was that same way when they won in 1999. If they scored first, the game basically was over. That's definitely got to be part of New Jersey's game plan. The Devils have to score first to put the pressure on New York because if you don't score first against the Rangers, they can really clamp down on you. We've seen it over and over again and it's certainly something they did in Game 7. That's something the Devils have to be talking about. Any time you play a defense-first team, you've got to score first. It changes the dynamic big time, and while I don't know if it will be a weakness for the Rangers in that they have to score first, defensive hockey is what they're going to live and die by. And if you noticed, the team that scored first won every game in the Rangers-Capitals series.
The other big thing to note is that the Rangers play a tough, physical style, and they've also gone seven games in each of the first two rounds and won't have much rest before the start of this series. That's something New Jersey needs to take advantage of. There have to be guys that are hurting in that Rangers dressing room, especially after how physical that Capitals series was. If the Devils can come out and jump on the Rangers, I think they can take advantage of that. They've got to play a physical series and keep pounding these guys because they've played so many games in such a short period of time. That's got to be part of the game plan and I'm sure the Devils are talking about that -- making the Rangers play a high tempo game and forcing them to play wide open.
When I was coaching in L.A., I would talk to Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri and Marty McSorley and I'd ask them about their Edmonton days and what made them special and why they were able to win all those years. One of the things they always said was important was that in the early rounds they won quick. They thought it really helped them in later series to have that extra energy. It was always important to win in five games or four games in the early rounds while the teams they wound up playing later on already had gone seven or six. You have to wonder if after 14 games there will be a point at which the Rangers run out of gas. The longer this series goes the more it favors the Devils, who have had a big rest, gotten their guys healthy and are ready to go.
No team ever has won two Game 7s in the first two rounds and won the Cup, which is strange since to win two Game 7s you have to be a good team. It makes you think there has to be a reason, and the physical toll just might be it.
It will be a long, hard-fought series, but I still think it will come down to goaltending and defense. In this case I think the Rangers have the better goaltender because Henrik Lundqvist is in his prime and Brodeur isn't. It's just a fact -- and it may be the first time I've ever said that in a Rangers-Devils series. That will be a factor if the games are tight, but as I watched Saturday, I couldn't ignore New York's defense. It makes me wonder how guys like Adam Henrique or Sykora will get to the net. Clarkson and Parise will because that's their game, but you have to wonder about the other guys. Also, after watching how well the Rangers handled Backstrom and Ovechkin, why won't Kovalchuk have trouble finding space?
Because of all those factors, I think the Rangers will win this in six games.