The dream match-up is finally here. Indeed, when they drop the puck for Game One on Tuesday in Newark, it’ll be the Rangers and Devils doing battle in an exciting first round series.
For the first time in eleven years, the Battle of Hudson commences in the NHL Playoffs. Both classic rivals are competing for the same thing. After each had superb seasons, a lot is on the line in the Metropolitan Division Semifinals. Only one team will advance. The loser will have all summer to wonder what went wrong.
Those are high stakes. Only five points separated the Hudson rivals during a long 2022-23 season. The Devils had a great turnaround. They vaulted forward by finishing with 112 points. Good for second place in a tight Metro Division. They were only a point shy of first place. The Hurricanes won it for a second straight year. They’ll draw the Islanders in what could be a low-scoring battle.
The Devils’ improvement was a plus-49 difference from the previous season. As knowledgeable NJDevs blogger Hasan alluded to in a post, it isn’t an NHL record. That was actually set by the Sharks in ’93-94 when they were plus-58. That team went on to upset the Red Wings in a memorable first round. The Devils are hoping for similar success. The difference is that they have a better team capable of going on a run.
The Rangers overcame a slow start. In early December, they hit rock bottom during a frustrating loss to the Blackhawks. At the time, Patrick Kane was still a Hawk. He’s now a Blueshirt. It was a blowup by captain Jacob Trouba that was a turning point. After his helmet toss following a fight, they turned it around. After adding Kane with Vladimir Tarasenko, Tyler Motte, and key defenseman Niko Mikkola, they finished strong to wind up third with 107 points.
The Devils added key finisher Timo Meier to a young core that features potential Hart finalist Jack Hughes, captain Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, and Dougie Hamilton. They too want to do damage.
While their bitter rivals are all in on going for a Stanley Cup, following a run to the Conference Finals, the Jersey upstarts aren’t just here for show. They believe they can be that team. When you consider that the Rangers hadn’t seen a real postseason since 2017, look how close they came last year. The ‘why not us’ mentality can certainly be applied to the Devils.
The Rangers boast more experience. Led by Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Kane, Tarasenko, Vincent Trocheck, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Trouba, they should have the edge there. If it’s a close series, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be, the Blueshirts can lean on their past postseason success. That goes double for Stanley Cup winner Barclay Goodrow, who usually raises his game during this time of year. Adding former champions, Kane and Tarasenko should provide some key voices to lean on.
Amongst the Devils who’ve been here before, they have veterans Hamilton, Meier, Tomas Tatar, Erik Haula, Brendan Smith, and former Bolts’ playoff hero Ondrej Palat. A player the Rangers unfortunately knows all too well. Key defensive pair Ryan Graves and John Marino also have past postseason experience.
If there’s a difference, it’s that the Rangers’ young players have last year to lean on. That could prove crucial for the 21 and Over Kid Line that features Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko. They were a key factor in last year’s run. How will Jack Hughes respond to the challenge? That’s a good question which will get answered. He broke the single season team record held by Patrik Elias by recording 99 points (43-56-99). That was three better than Elias’ 96 in 00-01.
There’s a lot of subplots. Both Fox and Hamilton each led their respective blue lines in offense with over 70 points. Hamilton broke the Devils’ record by scoring 22 goals. Fox is considered more well-rounded. But Hamilton has been here before. There’s the sexy center match-up between Hughes and Zibanejad. Who will prevail? Which of the big deadline acquisitions will have the most impact? It’s all that makes this first round series so compelling.
It’s time to break down the two teams. This should be fun. Before I do, let’s take a look at the series history.
THE HUDSON RIVALRY
YEAR ROUND SERIES RESULT
’92 Div. Semis Rangers in 7
’94 Conf. Finals Rangers in 7
’97 Conf. Semis Rangers in 5
’06 Conf. Qtrs Devils in 4
’08 Conf. Qtrs Rangers in 5
’12 Conf. Finals Devils in 6
Series History: Rangers lead 4-2.
The Rangers and Devils met four times during the 2022-23 season. The Devils took the season series by winning three of four games. A closer look at the match-up.
11/28 Devils 5 Rangers 3
12/12 Devils 3 Rangers 4 Overtime
1/7 Rangers 3 Devils 4 Overtime
3/30 Rangers 1 Devils 2
1-2-1 13 GA 140 Shots 3.23 GAA .907 Save Percentage
3-0-1 11 GA 120 Shots 2.70 GAA .908 Save Percentage
Hughes 4-2-6, Hischier 1-3-4, Mercer 1-3-4, Meier 1-2-3, Bratt 1-1-2, Tatar 1-1-2, Hamilton 0-2-2, Siegenthaler 0-2-2, Sharangovich 2-0-2
Miller 0-5-5, Zibanejad 1-3-4, Kreider 3-1-4, Chytil 1-2-3, Trocheck 2-1-3, Fox 0-3-3, Panarin 1-1-2, Vesey 1-1-2, Trouba 0-2-2
METRO DIVISION SEMIFINALS
(M3) RANGERS VERSUS (M2) DEVILS
FORWARDS: If you like sexy match-ups, the Rangers boast a top line led by leading goalscorer Mika Zibanejad. His 39 goals and 20 power play goals paced the team. His 91 points were a career best. Chris Kreider was second with 36 goals. He led them with four shorthanded goals. Can Patrick Kane (5-7-12 in 19 GP) elevate his game with Zibanejad and Kreider?
The Devils counter with the sensational Jack Hughes. He erupted for a career best 43 goals, 56 assists, and his 99 points broke Jersey legend Patrik Elias’ single season record of 96. He centers Jesper Bratt, whose two-way capability, along with his speed, makes him a good fit. He went for a career high 32 goals while equaling the 73 points he had in 21-22. Big acquisition Timo Meier (9-5-14 in 21 GP) rounds it out with the physical tools and shot that can make an impact.
The second lines are equally compelling. Vincent Trocheck (22-42-64) finished strong while centering Artemi Panarin (29-52-91) and key pick-up Vladimir Tarasenko (8-13-21 in 31 GP). Trocheck is the best face-off guy they have, winning 56.1 percent. Panarin comes in hot. He’s shooting the puck more. Tarasenko has fit in well due to his skating play-making and edge.
Nico Hischier had a terrific season. He set career bests in goals (31), assists (49), and points (80). The two-way pivot is responsible in all three zones as his plus-33 and team high three shorthanded goals attest. He went 53.9 percent on draws. His line with veteran Tomas Tatar (20 goals, +41) and the overlooked Dawson Mercer (27-29-56) can match up against a top scoring line. It’ll be interesting to see how Lindy Ruff deploys them.
Everyone loves what Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko bring to the table for the Blueshirts. Chytil had a career high 22 goals and 45 points while going plus-15. Kakko scored a personal best 17 goals with 40 points. Lafreniere produced a new high with 39 points. The Kid Line combines the speed of Chytil with the puck possession of Kakko. Lafreniere supplies the grit. He can come out with pucks and make plays.
At times, Ruff had Meier on the third line to provide scoring balance. He can always move proven playoff performer Ondrej Palat up. Palat struggled post surgery with only eight goals and 23 points in 49 games. But we know better. Erik Haula centers the line. An underrated player who is money between the dots (54.2 pct), he quietly had 41 points. Ruff sometimes will use Haula to take draws for Hughes (35.3). Jesper Boqvist (10 goals) is a solid skater.
The battle between the checking lines shouldn’t be ignored. Both the Rangers’ grind line of Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, and Tyler Motte, along with the Devils’ BMW line that features Mike McLeod, Miles Wood, and Nathan Bastian can be effective. Each fourth line likes to chip pucks deep and win board battles. They’re each capable of contributing. I’d give a slight edge to Vesey, Goodrow, and Motte due to them being a little better in their end.
DEFENSE: Both teams are led by a high scoring defenseman who can make an impact. The Rangers boast former Norris winner Adam Fox. A slick skater with terrific vision, he can do damage both in transition and on the forecheck. He finished with 72 points, including 60 assists. A great power play quarterback, Fox had 29 power play points. Partner Ryan Lindgren supplies the nuts and bolts. His presence is a big key. He will do anything to win games, laying his body out to block shots.
The Devils counter with the lethal Dougie Hamilton. His 22 goals are a new team record. More of a shoot first player, he will look to fire pucks from the point. His 74 points paced the club. His seven game-winners ranked second behind Hischier (9). Down the stretch, Jonas Siegenthaler was replaced by Kevin Bahl. But at the most recent practice, Siegenthaler was back on the top pair. He had a good first half but was inconsistent in the second half.
The key to the series could be the play of the match-up defense pairs. For the Rangers, Gerard Gallant likes to use K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba against opponents’ best. They log a ton of minutes. Miller hit a career high 43 points, including 34 assists. He takes more risks. Ttouba is the more stay at home defenseman who will deliver big hits. His 218 paced the team along with 196 blocks. They were on for a lot of goals against. They’ll get tested by the Devils’ speed.
The Devils have their own reliable second pair. It’s Ryan Graves and John Marino. Graves will sacrifice his body. He paced the team with 152 blocks. One more than Siegenthaler. Graves has a good shot. He’s capable of jumping into the play. He is also an expert at saving goals. Marino is the more steady defenseman. He doesn’t do much of the physical stuff but makes subtle plays to get out of trouble. They’ll be tasked with the Rangers’ best line. At the moment, that’s the Panarin unit.
Each third pair is decent. The Rangers made a wise addition by also adding Niko Mikkola from the Blues in the Tarasenko deal. A good skater for his size, he’s capable defensively with the more physical Braden Schneider. Baby Troubs had 147 hits and 130 blocks. Both are good at reading plays. However, they can be exploited in their end.
Damon Severson is the trusted veteran on the Devils’ bottom pair. He still can find the back of the net. He’s not asked to do as much. However, you still have to be aware of him. Defensively, he can be an adventure. Especially in transition. That’s why he’s protected. Bahl is a surprisingly good skater for his size. His confidence grew down the stretch. However, he isn’t overly physical. This is a new experience for the 22-year old.
GOALIES: The Rangers know they can rely on Igor Shesterkin in goal. Although it wasn’t his best season, he rounded into form late. Shesterkin finished with 37 wins, a 2.58 GAA, and 916 save percentage. Capable of stealing games, he can also lean on last year’s postseason experience. The former Vezina winner will face a good challenge.
He’ll need to play better than he did in the season series. But so do his teammates. They can’t expect to play so loose against a dangerous opponent. Shesterkin certainly is the established netminder in the series. Jaroslav Halak backs up. If he gets off the bench, that won’t be a good sign.
Vitek Vanecek has been the man for the Devils. He won a career high 33 games while posting a 2.45 GAA and .911 save percentage in his third season. There were some struggles the past two months. That could’ve been due to the workload. He made a career best 48 starts, appearing in 52 games. Can he continue to make the big saves like he did during the season?
The Devils are banking on it. The alternative is an inconsistent Mackenzie Blackwood, who again had setbacks with injuries. It’s become obvious that Akira Schmid should be the backup. He completely outplayed Blackwood, posting impressive numbers that included a 2.13 GAA and .922 save percentage. He’s only 22, but looks like the future in net for Jersey.
Coaches: Gerard Gallant has proven capable behind the Rangers bench. He expects a lot from his experienced team. If something isn’t clicking, he won’t hesitate to make a line switch. Usually, it’s the top two lines. He doesn’t mind going head to head with key match-ups. It’ll be interesting to see what his strategy is for slowing down the Devils.
Lindy Ruff has even more experience behind the bench. The Devils coach is a strong candidate for the Jack Adams. He did a masterful job turning the Devils around. No stranger to the postseason. He’s taken a team to the Stanley Cup Finals. Similar to Gallant in that respect. Ruff might prefer to get the match-ups. He has the last change with his team having home ice. He’ll probably be comfortable with his team utilizing its greatest strength to push the pace.
SPECIAL TEAMS: If there’s an area that could prove crucial, it’s the battle of special teams. Neither team was penalized much during the regular season. However, the power play and penalty kill always play a role in these series.
The Rangers boast the seventh ranked power play. They clicked at 24.5 percent (64-for-261), including the third best on the road. They were 28-for-114 (24.6) in away games. At home, they went 31-for-131 (23.7) to rate 12th. They allowed five shorthanded goals.
The five-man unit includes Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin, Fox, and Kane for now. He could be replaced by Tarasenko, who fits in better. The second unit features Trocheck, Chytil, Lafreniere, Tarasenko, and Trouba.
The Devils ranked fourth on the penalty kill. They tied with Calgary by having an 82.6 success rate. They ranked fourth at home, allowing 16 power play goals in 117 attempts (86.3). They were 13th on the road, going 78.8 percent (24 PPG allowed over 113 attempts).
They scored nine shorthanded goals, paced by Hischier’s three. Haula and Yegor Sharangovich each had two. Mercer and Severson had one apiece.
The Devils ranked 13th on the power play, clicking at 21.9 percent. They went 49-for-224. At home, they were 13th, going 29-for-126 (23.0). On the road, they ranked 16th, going 20-for-98 (20.4). They gave up eight shorthanded goals.
The top unit features Hughes with Hischier, Bratt, Meier, and Hamilton. They’ll obviously be leaned on. However, the second unit isn’t bad. It includes Wood, Haula, Mercer, Tatar, and Severson.
The Rangers finished 13th on the penalty kill. They improved down the stretch to wind up with an 81.2 success rate. They allowed 42 power play goals over 223 attempts. At home, they were 16th clicking at 79.8 percent (23 PPG allowed in 114 attempts). On the road, they were better ranking tied for third with Carolina. Both were 82.6 percent. The Rangers allowed 19 power play goals in 109 attempts.
They scored eight shorthanded goals. Kreider had half with four. Zibanejad, Trouba, Lindgren, and Vesey all had one.
INTANGIBLES: The Rangers boast an overwhelming experience with even their key younger players benefiting from last year’s trip to the Eastern Conference Final. That should be an edge if it’s a close series. They also have more pressure. Chris Drury went all in on the postseason. They’ll be under the spotlight.
The Devils don’t have as much experience. They’ll lean on vets like Palat, Hamilton, Haula, Meier, and Tatar. However, players of Hughes’ stature can use it to their advantage. Many are picking the Rangers. The disrespect could serve as a motivator. They’re a year ahead of schedule. They should be loose.
X-FACTOR: For the Rangers, it’s pretty simple. The Kid Line can make a big difference. If Chytil, Lafreniere, and Kakko can control the boards, they should get some clean looks. Secondary scoring this time of year is essential.
The Devils will look towards the BMW line of Bastian, McLeod, and Wood. They’re very effective on the cycle and get traffic in front. That’s their energy line.
DEPTH: What happens if a player goes down? Or what if a player isn’t performing. The Devils have more depth. They can insert either Yegor Sharangovich or vet Curtis Lazar if needed. They also boast both well-respected veteran Brendan Smith and newcomer Luke Hughes on the back end. Neither will start the series. But if Ruff decides to show a different look, he has options.
The Rangers don’t have that same strength. Their lineup is what you’ll probably see. Barring an injury to Lindgren, Ben Harpur is the extra defenseman. He played okay in that role. He brings a physical edge. The extra forwards are Jonny Brodzinski and Jake Leschyshyn. Brodzinski would get in if necessary.
SERIES ANALYSIS: The Devils and Rangers both have good offenses. But, it’s the Devild who are more lethal due to their combination of speed and skill. They can transition quickly. They’re also underrated on the forecheck. Their aggressive nature can force turnovers. Something we saw during the season series.
The Rangers might be tempted to trade chances with their close Hudson rivals. It isn’t advisable. They would be better off slowing the Devils down. A higher tempo favors the faster opponent. The Rangers are the more physical team. They have more skaters who’ll finish checks. They will want to forecheck to try to wear the Devils down.
The Devils will win if they can use their superior speed to get in open space and swarm the Rangers’ net. Vanecek makes the key saves as he did during the season. Special teams is a wash.
The Rangers will win if they can dictate the tempo. Don’t get into a track meet. Shesterkin makes the difference in net. Their power play does damage.
SERIES PREDICTION: This promises to be an exciting first round series. Expect a lot of counters, momentum shifts, and big saves. I think you’ll see at least two overtime games. It’ll be close. I don’t see home ice mattering. Each team can win in the other’s barn. There will be plenty of fans represented in both buildings. Although more Rangers fans at The Prudential Center than Devils fans at Madison Square Garden. The style of play will decide the seventh ever meeting between the Rangers and Devils.
Rangers in 7
Pingback: Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Picks and Beyond | Battle Of Hudson