Rangers, Devils clash in Game 1 of East finals
(Sports Network) - The Eastern Conference finals will begin tonight in New York City, as the top-seeded Rangers host the rival New Jersey Devils for Game 1 at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers will be right back at it this evening after winning a decisive Game 7 against the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals on Saturday. New York notched a 2-1 victory over the visiting Caps to earn their first trip to the conference finals since 1997.
Henrik Lundqvist made 22 saves, while Brad Richards and Michael Del Zotto posted the goals for the Rangers, who also needed seven games to eliminate eighth-seeded Ottawa in Round 1.
"It feels so good," said Lundqvist after the Game 7 win over the Caps. "It's been a tough series."
Fatigue could be a factor at the start of this series, as the Devils will have had five full days of rest between the two rounds compared to one off day for the Rangers.
Game 2 of this best-of-seven series is scheduled for Wednesday night at MSG.
New Jersey is coming off a five-game series rout of the Flyers in the conference semifinals and the sixth-seeded Devils are in the third round for the first time since winning the last of the franchise's three Stanley Cup titles in 2003. The Devils went seven games in the opening round against Florida.
It's fitting that the Rangers have gone the distance in each of the first two rounds of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. Although the top-seeded Rangers finished the regular season with 109 points, head coach John Tortorella's club is not a team that overpowers the opposition with offense. Instead, New York is able to wear the other team down thanks to its superb team defense and the steady net play of Lundqvist, the Rangers' perennial Vezina Trophy candidate.
As a result of their ability to grind out close win after close win, the Blueshirts find themselves in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since '97. The last time New York was this far it lost in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers, but in 2012, the Rangers hope to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since winning their last championship in 1994.
The Rangers have scored a total of 29 goals through 14 games this postseason. While that's not exactly an impressive offensive output, New York has only surrendered 26 goals this postseason for a stingy average of 1.86 goals allowed per game.
Lundqvist is the main reason New York is so effective at winning close contests. Although he's yet to win the award for the league's best goaltender, the 30-year-old Swede grabbed a fourth Vezina Trophy nomination for his play this season and he was also named as one of three finalists for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL's most valuable player.
"King Henrik" went 39-18-5 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 2011-12 and he also posted eight shutouts during the regular season. Lundqvist has stopped 371-of-396 shots in the postseason for a 1.68 GAA and .937 save percentage.
The Devils picked Philadelphia apart mainly because they played better as a team. From New Jersey's biggest star Ilya Kovalchuk all the way down to the fourth-line grinders, the Devils' biggest strength in the last round was their ability to pull together in the same direction.
Kovalchuk is enjoying the best postseason of his career as the Russian sniper had never been past the first round until this year's playoffs. He missed one game (Game 2) against the Flyers to rest a back injury and Kovy appeared to come back stronger than ever. After recording two goals and four assists in the final three games against Philly, Kovalchuk is leading all New Jersey players this postseason with 12 points on five goals and seven assists.
All told, New Jersey has posted 36 goals in 12 playoff games this season and 32 of those markers have come from the Devils' impressive group of forwards. Top-line center Travis Zajac is tied with Kovalchuk for the team lead this spring with five goals and winger Zach Parise has four goals and four assists.
Of course, Martin Brodeur is still manning the crease for the Devils and he rebounded nicely against the Flyers after struggling a bit in the opening round against Florida. The 40-year-old backstop has a 2.05 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 12 outings this spring.
Overall, the future Hall of Fame goaltender is 107-85 with a 2.01 GAA and 24 shutouts over 193 career playoff games.
As Atlantic Division combatants, the Devils and Rangers met six times during the regular season and each team won three of those tilts. New York held a slight advantage in goals, scoring 14 times in the season series while holding the Devils to 12 tallies over the six contests.
The Blueshirts have dominated the postseason history against the Devils, winning four of the five all-time playoff series between the clubs. New Jersey's only triumph came in the form of a sweep in the 2006 conference quarterfinals, but the Rangers avenged that loss by eliminating the Devils in five games in the opening round of the 2008 postseason.
This series marks the second time the Rangers and Devils will meet with a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals on the line. New York outlasted the Devils in seven games in the 1994 conference finals.
Richards had just two assists in six games against the Devils this year, while Marian Gaborik posted two markers and three helpers in the season series. Carl Hagelin was New York's most productive player against New Jersey this season, registering eight points (2G, 6A) over the six meetings.
David Clarkson netted three goals and added an assist in six games against New York this season, while Kovalchuk had four points on two goals and two helpers. One concern for the Devils is the fact that standout rookie Adam Henrique struggled mightily against the Blueshirts this year, registering zero points and a minus-four rating in five games.
Brodeur started all six games against New York this season and went 3-3 with a shutout and a 1.99 GAA. Lundqvist was 3-2 with a 1.41 GAA and one shutout over five appearances against the Devils.
05/14 10:31:29 ET