With the NHL’s homestretch looming on the horizon, games between teams in the playoff hunt multiply in importance.
Exhibit A is Tuesday’s clash between the Rangers and Devils at Prudential Center (MSG2 & MSG+, 6:30 PM). This is an intriguing contest for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the Devils are making a determined effort — while surprising many — to stay within the Elite Eight.
By contrast, the Rangers have survived several potholes and remain in a loftier position than all their Metro Division foes with the exception of exceptional Washington.
Regarding his club, coach Alain Vigneault would, more than anything, like to see consistency; an element that has been missing ever since the Rangers great leap forward of October. A.V.’s Newark counterpart, John Hynes, has a different challenge.
Simply put, he has to formulate a two-month plan to keep his wonder club playing above the less-than-enthusiastic preseason expectations.
Now let’s see how these teams matchup.
Cory Schneider has effectively carried the Devils. Which is not to say that Henrik Lundqvist‘s game has slipped. Far from it. The King has been the Blueshirts’ primary star on many nights and was especially effective last fall, coming out of the gate. In a sense, Tuesday’s contest will be as much a Cory vs. Henrik matchup as well as Rangers/Devils.
New York has a significant blue line advantage on paper. Mind you, the game still is played on ice not Kleenex so that advantage may be minimized or even eliminated.
Still, the likes of captain Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein have earned their reputations as dependable D-men. Furthermore, if Dan Girardi regains his groove along with Dan Boyle, well, that’s one heckuva defense. Nor has rookie Dylan McIlrath turned into a slouch either.
The trick here is that the Devils have a quartet playing some of the best hockey of their lives. Captain Andy Greene and up-and-comer Adam Larsson have blended into a solid unit which is not exactly a surprise. More amazing is the fact that John Moore,Damon Severson and David Schlemko each have been above-average performers. Meanwhile, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas remain works in progress. Gelinas’ mighty shot – arguably the hardest on the team – may give him an edge, particularly since Merrill entered the All-Star break with an injury as did Moore.
Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, J.T. Miller and Derek Stepan have been the Rangers’ most dependable scorers, but there’s more firepower in the arsenal and that’s where New York has an edge. Rick Nash (if healthy), Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider are scoring explosives waiting to be detonated. The potential is obvious and could reach fruition as quickly as tonight.
Both Oscar Lindberg and Viktor Stalberg have been puzzling, but each has an excellent upside. There can be no arguments aboutDominic Moore’s value; not to mention Jesper Fast.
On the New Jersey side, General Manager Ray Shero acquired a couple of useful scorers in Kyle Palmieri and Lee Stempniak. On top of that, Travis Zajac has re-found his two-way game along with Ranger-killer Adam Henrique. That hasn’t turned the Devs into an offensive powerhouse which is why coach Hynes requires more contributions from the third and fourth units.
Which is another way of saying the likes of Lighthorse Harrys such as Stephen Gionta, Jordin Tootoo, Jacob Josefson and the surprisingly explosive Bobby Farnham could make life easier for Schneider.
- WINNING KEYS
FOR RANGERS: Blanket the younger, more inexperienced Devils defenders with heavy forechecking. Cycle until the good shot is available.
FOR DEVILS: Score the first goal and then let Schneider attempt a game heist as he has done so often. A second, third and fourth goal wouldn’t hurt either.