NJ vs. NY river rivalry series — Devils face Rangers in playoffs
NEWARK — During the last two months, anticipation grew for hockey fans on the New York and New Jersey sides of the Hudson River ahead of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The first-round series between the Rangers and Devils that's been on the horizon is now a reality. The best-of-seven river rivalry will get underway on Tuesday at the Prudential Center. If it's anything like most of their other six postseason matchups, it will be a joy to watch.
Two in the series have gone to a seventh game, with the most memorable the 1994 Eastern Conference final decided in double overtime on a wraparound goal by New York's Stephane Matteau.
While the Rangers have a 4-2 record in the series, the Devils won the last one, beating the Rangers in six games in the 2012 conference final on a goal in overtime by Adam Henrique. New Jersey was then denied a fourth Stanley Cup by the Los Angeles Kings.
“At the end of the day, it's hockey,” Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton said. “It's what we do and what we love. Everyone is going to go out there and do their best.”
The teams played four times in the regular season with the Devils winning three in regulation and the Rangers once in overtime. Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said the teams are comparable.
“Who executes the best, who defends the best, and manages the puck best is probably going to win,” he said.
The Devils finished the season with franchise-records of 112 points and 52 wins in placing second in the Metropolitan Division. They had 63 points last season. The Rangers finished third in the division with 107 points.
If you haven't seen much of 21-year-old Jack Hughes, he's among the best passers in the league.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft is making his playoff debut during a breakout season with the Devils. Hughes found his goal-scoring touch with 43 goals and a franchise-record 99 points.
What makes Hughes stand out is his skating ability. He's fast, can change directions in a split second and rarely loses control of the puck.
The Rangers need to slow him down, if they can catch him.
IGOR VS. VITEK
The series will match Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers against Vitek Vanecek of the Devils.
Shesterkin overcame a slow start this season and enters the postseason looking like the 2021-22 Vezina Trophy winner and the guy who led New York to the conference final a year ago. He posted a 37-13-8 record with a 2.48 goals against average and .916 save percentage.
Acquired from Washington for picks in last year's draft, Vanecek had a career year, posting a 33-11-4 mark with a 2.45 GAA and a .911 save percentage. Devils coach Lindy Ruff is not concerned about his three career postseason starts, saying the goalie has proven himself all year.
EXPERIENCE VS. YOUTH
The Rangers have more playoff experience. It's their third trip to the postseason in the last four years, although 2020 was a qualifying-round loss during the pandemic. New Jersey is back for the first time since 2018 and only the second since playing in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
Hughes and the Devils' other top players — Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer and Timo Meier — are all 26 or younger.
Rangers stars Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko and Artemi Panarin all will be 30 when the puck drops for the opening faceoff.
The Devils are fast, live off the rush and have an underrated defense. They are far less comfortable cycling the puck in the offensive zone.
If the Rangers are going to win, they have to slow down New Jersey and definitely avoid the turnovers that fuel the rush.
New York has the size and strength to cycle in the Devils' zone. Whether that physical play can slow down New Jersey remains to be seen.
In their run to the conference final a year ago, the Rangers' “Kid Line” of Filip Chytil centering Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko was a big lift. New York hopes acquiring Kane and Tarasenko at the trade deadline yields dividends.
Likewise, the Devils hope the late acquisition of Meier proves beneficial as well as the offseason signing of Ondrej Palat, who was massive in the Tampa Bay's recent success. Mercer surprised in the closing months, and it remains to be seen whether defenseman Luke Hughes, Jack's brother, will play. He signed after the college season at Michigan and has two appearances in NHL regular-season games.