Unpredictability of First Round makes Game Seven between Rangers and Devils hard to call

In sports, there’s nothing like Game Seven. When it comes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the excitement is through the roof. Both players and fans count down until the drop of the puck. After that, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.

If you don’t believe me, look at what happened to both the record-setting Bruins and former champion Avalanche last night. By show of hands, how many people had both the Panthers and Kraken pulling off mammoth first round upsets that have shook up the postseason? I’ll guess not too many outside of Florida or Seattle.

When asked about tonight’s do or die Game Seven by reporters earlier today, Patrick Kane said, “There’s nothing like Game Seven. So it’s definitely an exciting game to be a part of.”

Regarding what happened to the Bruins and Avalanche, he gave a very honest assessment of where the game is.

“I think that’s the NHL for you today. There’s so much parity in the league. Any given team could win. Usually, the best team comes out in a best-of-seven series. But yeah. Anything can happen.”

Kane is familiar with Game Sevens. He’s played in five, all with the Blackhawks. His record is 2-3. The two they won came in the Conference Finals. The Blackhawks would go on to win the Cup in both years, including their last when they conquered the Lightning in 2015.

Saturday’s hero, Chris Kreider, will be skating in his ninth Game Seven. Since he debuted during the 2012 postseason, he’s been very successful, going 7-1 in deciding games. The seven wins are one shy of the NHL record shared by former teammates Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh, Brad Richards, along with Ray Bourque, Justin Williams, and Glenn Anderson. Only Richards was perfect going 8-0.

On the other side, no Devil has been in more deciding games than Ondrej Palat. The former Lightning Stanley Cup hero has a record of 4-2 in Game Seven. Surely, his younger teammates, including star Jack Hughes, will draw from his experience.

If we were to give an edge, it would go to the Rangers, who went through it last year. They came back twice in the first two rounds. First, they dug out of a 3-1 hole to defeat the Penguins in dramatic fashion when Artemi Panarin scored in overtime on the power play. Then, they rallied from a 3-2 deficit to get the better of the Hurricanes by running away with the seventh game to advance to the Conference Finals.

Many players remain from the 2021-22 roster. That includes Mika Zibanejad, Adam Fox, Igor Shesterkin, Ryan Lindgren, Jacob Trouba, K’Andre Miller, Barclay Goodrow, Tyler Motte, Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Braden Schneider, and the aforementioned Kreider and Panarin. Vincent Trocheck was on the opposite side for last year’s Game Seven in the second round.

Given all their experience, one would think the Rangers will prevail later tonight when they visit their close Hudson rivals at The Prudential Center in Newark. However, be careful. Expect the unexpected. If you go in overconfident, you could wind up regretting it.

Who will play the hero tonight? Will it be a top star or a role player that steps up? Nobody knows. If we knew how it would play out, there wouldn’t be a Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! Nor a Henrique, whose goal in the first round allowed the Devils to advance in Game Seven over the Panthers 11 years ago. He’s best known for his overtime winner that beat the Rangers in six hard fought games during the Eastern Conference Final.

It isn’t always your best players who deliver in big moments. Not everyone is Messier. For those Blueshirt fans flashing back to what he did, that was 29 years ago. This is now. It’s 2023. There’s no script for Game Seven. Anything can happen.

At least we know that Akira Schmid will return to the net for the Devils. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds to finally being solved last game. The Rangers scored five times to chase him with over eight minutes left in Game Six. They should have more confidence. That means continuing to shoot the puck.

The Devils know that it’s been tough to beat Shesterkin. Probably the best goalie left in this wacky postseason, he’ll need to be at his best. It doesn’t matter how good he’s been. It’s another big game on his resume. The Rangers better remember to play well in front of him. If they don’t, all bets are off.

Both teams want to have their best game of the series. It’s hanging in the balance. One critical mistake could be curtains. You’d figure each side would come out playing tight. It’s my opinion that the more aggressive team should have a better chance of winning. You can’t sit back and wait for something to happen. You have to go for it.

Of course, decision-making will be a key. Puck management is crucial. The team that manages the puck better should be in good shape. Sloppy turnovers doomed Boston last night. That more than anything is why their special season ended so early. Watching that overtime, it was a question of when the Panthers would win. They were the better team.

It boils down to not panicking. There’s definitely anxiety for the players. If they don’t have nerves before such a big game, they’re probably not normal. It becomes about execution. When I watched the Bruins, who rallied from two down to take the lead before giving up a late goal to Brandon Montour, they didn’t play with much confidence. They played scared. You can’t play that way in such pressure packed games.

In this series, it hasn’t come easy for some key stars. Zibanejad scored his first goal in Game Six. Panarin remains without a goal. Is tonight the night he breaks through? Miller has one assist. So, too, does Trocheck. Outside of his big Game Two, where he had a goal and two assists, Kane hasn’t been great. But he knows what it takes. So does Vladimir Tarasenko, who notched his third goal and added an assist the other night. A smart move by Gerard Gallant moving the former Blues star up.

On the Devils’ side, captain Nico Hischier remains without a goal. He has been okay but probably needs to be a factor later. Jesper Bratt is also without a goal. He did set up Hamilton in overtime to win Game Three. But he hasn’t been that noticeable. Timo Meier remains without a point. He was acquired for this kind of game.

It isn’t Hughes that leads the Devils in scoring this series. But rather, the battle tested Erik Haula. He enters with five points (3-2-5). The gritty two-way pivot has proven why they moved Pavel Zacha to get him. He wins key draws, battles hard, and goes to the dirty areas.

Kreider provides that for the Rangers. His five power play goals and six overall lead all skaters. There are not many other Blueshirts that do what he does. Lafreniere will go to the net and finish checks. He has no points. Trocheck isn’t shy about playing in front, but only has one goal. The grinders like Goodrow will get their jersey dirty. This is his kind of game.

What about the team defenses? Obviously, the Rangers are led by Fox (8 assists) and rugged partner Lindgren. So much of what they do runs through Fox. When he’s been good, they’ve won all three games. It’s no coincidence that he racked up all his points in Games 1-2 and 6. However, the match-up tandem of Miller and Trouba will determine a lot at five-on-five. They must have a good night.

On the Jersey side, they’ll need Hamilton and partner Jonas Siegenthaler to play well. Hamilton is their biggest offensive threat from the back end. When he contributes, they’ve been successful. It still could come down to Ryan Graves and John Marino. They play a similar defensive role to Miller and Trouba. When the Devils won three straight, that key pair played well. They were victimized in Game Six.

Of their secondary players, Mike McLeod has been effective. He’s won a ridiculous 66.2 percent of face-offs (43-and-22). A good skater who works well as the checking center, he plays with energy.

Keep an eye on Dawson Mercer. He’s got goals over the last two games. He’s particularly dangerous shorthanded when teamed with Haula. Shesterkin made two huge saves to deny them at a crucial point last game.

Maybe that player for the Rangers is Chytil. He has a goal and three assists in the series. Most of his success came during the first two games. If not him, Kaapo Kakko has been very involved. He could easily have more than a goal and assist. We’ll see if the former second pick taken after Hughes can be an x-factor.

Whatever happens, it’ll be exciting. The crowd will be into it. They were very loud for Game Five. The same echoed true for MSG in Game Six. A deciding Game Seven is as good as it gets for playoff hockey.

Will either coach have to make a key move during the game? Gallant would tweak his lines if he has to. Lindy Ruff isn’t afraid to mix things up if things aren’t going well. It’s two proven bench bosses.

There’s more pressure on the Rangers. They have a lot riding on this. That’s why they added both Tarasenko and Kane. The Devils are the younger team that’s surprised many this year. Please refer to Hasan’s piece for tonight. I agree with him about the game’s start time. Network TV doesn’t ever consider the fans who attend these games.

Ratings are up for the seventh Battle of Hudson. You have to think they’ll get increased viewership for Game Seven. There’s no greater theater. If it’s close, there will be drama. Electricity will be in the air.

Game Seven. Tonight. 8 PM. See you there.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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