Mid-Series Review of 2012 Eastern Conference Finals: Rangers vs. Devils
Very unlike both clubs, the fierce and reckless play exhibited in the regular season had given way to conservative and level-headed maneuvering with both teams preferring to not make poor mistakes rather than to take great risks.
Then this happened.
This series has evolved from game to game, slowly but surely growing into a gladiatorial battle of bloodied heavyweights from a tussle of mild-mannered toddlers. And I am proud to say that I have seen both sides of this series.
As I highlighted in my series preview, the Devils and the Rangers combined for one fight through the first two rounds of the playoffs, yet their regular season meetings were littered with petty and reckless bouts.
We found out soon enough that this series would not be like the regular season; both coaches had instructed their players to play the puck, not the skater. The Rangers' two 3-0 shutout wins over the Devils in Games 1 and 3 reflected this ideology. Although the jersey colors and venues were different, Games 1 and 3 were near-replicas of each other. The Devils dominated the first two periods, throwing shot after shot on the great Henrik Lundqvist and blowing opportunity after opportunity in the process.
The stingy Rangers’ D limited the chances the Devils had; and when New Jersey saw an opening in the Rangers wall, a diving body – usually Dan Girardi or Ryan McDonaugh – would quickly close it. The Devs gradually became tired and frustrated and, in both games, came out disoriented in the third period.
Get this for coincidence! In Game 1, Dan Girardi scored a power-play goal early in the third, Chris Kreider netted a second soon after, and, with less than two minutes to go, the Rangers threw in an empty-netter just for show. In Game 3, Dan Girardi scored a power-play goal early in the third, Chris Kreider netted a second soon after, and, with less than three minutes to go, the Rangers threw in an empty-netter just for show.
That being said, the Rangers have really only dominated –- and won –- two periods, out of a possible twelve in the series. Mostly every other frame has featured an onslaught of New Jersey goals and shots, while New York falters playing 5-on-5 in the offensive zone.
Most recently, in Game 4 – to which I also attended, this time with a like-minded friend – New Jersey came out of the gates on fire, starting the game on a 12-3 shot run. An overly confident and slow Rangers team had no answer for the hungrier and speedier Devils; and before the twelfth minute of the game had passed, New Jersey had a dominating 2-0 lead with a loud and abrasive Prudential Center crowd behind them. The Rangers would never recover.
Through the first four games, it is becoming clear that whoever starts out hotter and disrupts the opposing goalie more often and more effectively will win – the first team to score has indeed won every game so far. Both goalies have been pretty outstanding so far this series. Despite two horrid third periods and a shorthanded second frame in Game 2, Devils goalie Marty Brodeur has played very solid so far and is not showing any negative signs of aging – he’s 40, you know – still making risky, but miraculous saves time and time again.
In the other crease, King Henry may be the reason why the Rangers have not been swept out of this series; his stellar and consistent play in net, save for Game 4, has kept New Jersey from pushing the Rangers towards the cliff early in the games and has preserved the Blueshirts’ leads fearlessly late in the games. As I mentioned in my series preview, this Eastern Conference Finals will still come down to who is the better goalkeeper at the end of the day. It’s Marty vs. King Henry.
So, now it’s a best-of-three series and it’s about to get real testy. Devils coach Peter DeBoer and Rangers skipper John Tortorella have been spouting their mouths off and flinging mud at each other so much so that Obama and Romney may already be taking notes for their upcoming presidential campaigns. Yeah, it’s that dirty. After Game 3, Torts accused the Devils of “diving” LeBron-style and complained about DeBoer’s tactics, which include freeing up Ilya Kovalchuk with illegal and subtle picks.
After former Devil Mike Rupp – who, by the way, scored the Cup-winning goal for New Jersey in the 2003 Cup Final against Anaheim – inexplicably and recklessly assaulted Peter Harrold and legendary goalie and fan favorite Martin Brodeur in a five-second span in the middle of Game 4’s third period, the true and honest underlying anger in both teams erupted. Punches were flying. Penalty minutes were a plenty. The coaches were even jawing a bit! And Rupp – rightfully so, in my objective opinion – was given multiple Jersey salutes and shouts of extreme discouragement from the belligerent and irate Devils fans.
And, at the moment, standing up from my club seat with a broad view of the arena and its 17,000-plus crowd, I could sense the series had changed. It had become blood sport.
Still, the series is even; and, despite New Jersey’s momentum, the Rangers still have two home games and the best goalie in the league on their side. If New York cannot recover from Monday’s pathetic showing and they do fall tonight at the Garden, I assure you the series is over and that Zach Parise and Co. will get a shot at the unbelievably unbelievable Los Angeles Kings.
However, if the Rangers pull off another 3-0 shutout in an odd-numbered game by simply aiding and protecting their fearless goalie or if they can match the intensity of Game 4 and sprinkle in a tad more level-headedness, then this baby is heading to the inevitable Game 7 back at the Garden.
So, I’ve had half a series to think about it. What’s my pick? Well, I’m a man of my word – and of the Garden State.
Devils in 7.
Wait, scratch that.
Devils in 3.
With the eight-seeded Los Angeles Kings winning the Western Conference Final over the Phoenix Coyotes, 4-3 in overtime, on Tuesday, Bettman has secured the No. 2 media market in North America for future Stanley Cup viewing. The highly sought-after Los Angeles audience has fell in love with their “beloved” Kings – probably because their darling Lakers and their sideshow cousin Clippers aren’t taking up space at Staples anymore.
The Los Angeles area has not exhibited this much passion for the sport since the Gretzky years, including their Stanley Cup run in 1993 – the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks (of Anaheim?) have made it to the Finals twice since then, but the Hollywood media and fan bases aren’t really interested in what goes on 25 miles down the I-5.
Oh, but Gary, it gets better! Not only has the NHL captivated the enormous Los Angeles audience, but it has also assured itself a high viewership coming out of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, the #No. 1 media market in all the land. With the Rangers and the Devils playing each other tooth-and-nail and all other New York sports suffering (see: last place Yankees), both states are locked into this series.
Regardless of who wins the now-best-of-three series, both New Yorkers and New Jerseyans will tune in, with eyes glued to the tele, to either root their club on to a Stanley Cup or to hope their blood rival doesn’t hoist the grail. It’s going to be a exhilarating last few weeks of the National Hockey League season, so sit back, grow a grizzly/grimy beard, and enjoy!