NEWARK, N.J. -- The verbal sparring, gamesmanship, animosity and on-ice jabs aside, the Devils and Rangers are locked in a chess match that continues Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers want to have a better start in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS). The Devils know that, and they want to counter by staying as aggressive early in games as they have been all series.
The Devils want to use their forward depth to their advantage to take a 3-2 lead in the series. The Rangers know that, and they want to counter by jumping on New Jersey early with a goal, or at least dominate in puck possession.
New Jersey was the better team in Game 4. Considering the Devils peppered Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with 36 shots on goal in Game 3 and won Game 2, you could make the argument that they have been the better team since the Rangers broke out with three goals in the third period of Game 1.
That doesn't matter now. The series is tied, and each team knows what it has to do to pull within one win of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
Here are three keys for each team in order to win Game 5:
3 KEYS FOR THE DEVILS
1. Roll four lines
The Devils jumped to a 2-0 lead in Game 4 because over a nearly eight-minute stretch they were able to use all four lines and all three defense pairs. At no point did they lose momentum. At no point did their aggressive forecheck become less effective.
RANGERS VS. DEVILS
Players loving DeBoer's emotion
Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer The Devils took notice at Peter DeBoer's show of emotion during the sometimes testy third period of Game 4 and rallied behind their coach. READ MORE ›
The key to sustaining that is in the confidence coach Peter DeBoer has shown in his fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier. DeBoer, who said Wednesday that having an effective fourth line is "critical," has proven in this series, and really throughout the playoffs, that he is not afraid to put his fourth liners on the ice in key situations.
It's for good reason, too, because that line has been excellent against the Rangers at keeping the aggressive forecheck going and protecting the puck in the attacking zone to create offensive chances. Carter had a goal in Game 2 and Bernier was credited with an assist. That line is averaging right around 10 minutes of ice time per game.
The Devils need more of the same from their fourth line in Game 5, because when they are effective DeBoer can roll his lines to keep his team fresh. If DeBoer has to shorten his bench, the Devils' forecheck likely will become less effective because the forwards will grow tired as the game goes along.
"I can't overstate the importance of it," DeBoer said.
2. Remain calm and composed
The Devils have prided themselves in the playoffs on being the team that plays within the whistles. The Flyers tried to bait them into retaliatory penalties, but the Devils stayed clear of it. The Rangers tried to do it in the third period of Game 4 when the score was 3-0, and again New Jersey didn't bite.
DeBoer reminds his team daily about the need for composure because the team that stays composed usually is the team that finds success.
No one knows if any of the extracurricular drama that unfolded in Game 4 will carry over to Game 5. But if it does, or if the game Wednesday takes on a life of its own (a more likely scenario), the Devils again have to be the team that remains disciplined.
"The series is pretty long and you have to focus on what you're doing, not be mad," Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky told NHL.com. "Every time on the ice something happens after the shift and you have to stay focused, play hockey. You can be mad after the game."
3. Aggressive start
The Devils are prepared for the Rangers to come out flying in Game 5.
"More often than not they have a good start in their building, much like Philadelphia does," captain Zach Parise said. "We're aware of that and we'll be ready for it."
They've been ready at the start of every game in this series; the Rangers have not been. That was the difference in Game 4, and the Devils know they have to make it the difference in Game 5.
In Games 2 and 4 they saw the benefit of jumping to a lead in the first period. The Rangers had to play catch-up, and for a team struggling to score more than two goals a game, that is not a good situation to be in.
The Rangers caught the Devils in the second period of Game 2, but the New Jersey kept pressuring, got the goal back and won the game in the third period. The Devils were relentless from the start of Game 4 and had a 2-0 lead 11:59 into the game. They never looked back.
3 KEYS FOR THE RANGERS
1. Clean breakouts
The Rangers haven't been able to possess the puck as much as they would like in the series. A good reason for that is how choppy their breakouts from the defensive zone have been.
A clean breakout goes a long way toward getting the puck into the offensive zone with speed. It can force the Devils to backpedal and perhaps even create odd-man situations. It certainly gives the Rangers a better chance to get the puck in deep -- below the faceoff dots -- which is where they want their offense to come from.
However, the Rangers' breakouts have been choppy in this series because a lot of the time the defensemen are trying to get the puck out of the zone at the end of a shift. They have been getting hemmed in the defensive zone because of the Devils' aggressive forecheck and have found themselves defending for way too long before having a chance to get the puck out.
At that point the forwards likely are going for a line change and the defensemen are looking to get off the ice, too. It usually ends up as a pass to the red line and a chip or a dump into the zone that can lead to Devils goalie Martin Brodeur coming out of his crease to play it and start New Jersey's next wave up the ice against the new group of Rangers forwards and defensemen.
The Rangers have to limit the Devils' time of possession in the attacking zone, and move it up so their forwards can work in the offensive zone.
"Yeah, but it's tough," Rangers forward Carl Hagelin said. "They pinch the wall pretty hard. So it's tough to get the wingers. We got to find a way to get it out."
2. Play below the dots
If getting a clean breakout is the first part of the Rangers' offense that must work, the second is getting the puck deep and working below the faceoff dots, or even the goal line. That's how they created the penalty that led to Dan Girardi's game-opening goal in Game 3. It's how they worked to get Chris Kreider's deflection goal that gave them a 2-0 lead in Game 3.
The Rangers have not possessed the puck below the faceoff dots nearly enough in this series. The Devils deserve a lot of the credit for that because they have not allowed the Rangers too much attack-zone time. However, the Rangers know they have to find a way to change that in Game 5 or else they again will find themselves chasing and relying heavily on Lundqvist's capable shoulders.
"It has been a series so far of them having the puck a lot more than we have, and that's what we're going to try to change," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "It's just a simple fact; we need to get better at it."
3. Be ready
Why haven't the Rangers been able to match the Devils' aggressiveness early in games?
It's a question with a thousand answers, none of which would satisfy anyone involved with the Rangers.
"I think it has to do with them coming hard at us. We have to control that," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "And us getting on our forecheck, and that's where we're successful. We need to keep rolling it over and holding onto some pucks. If we do that we'll get our confidence in the first [period] and be going."
Of course, the Rangers would love to have the lead after the first period, but at this point you get the sense that they'll take a tie game as long as they are the aggressors and manage to get some quality scoring chances against Brodeur in the first 20 minutes.
It's a recipe for disaster if they again let the Devils dictate the play in the first period.
"There's no question Jersey, right on through the playoffs, not just our series, they have blitzed teams and gained momentum," Tortorella said. "Momentum is a big part of playoff hockey. There's no question we like to get that on our side right away."