There’s no team in the Eastern Conference as skilled as the Rangers. Their star power and depth are unrivaled by anyone in the Metropolitan Division, and when all fails, reigning Vezina-winner Igor Shesterkin is back there to rescue them.
However, when you play a fast team like the Devils, there’s rarely time to settle play down, which means you must do damage on “Broken plays” and be opportunistic when you have time for clean shots.
SHOOT & CRASH:
New Jersey ranked 31st this season in defending shots off of “Broken plays” (441) yet finished ninth in total goals allowed (222).
The last respectable defensive numbers are primarily due to the play of goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who signed for three years at $3.4 million AAV last Summer before beating out Mackenzie Blackwood for the starting job. While he’s no Shesterkin, Vanecek will stop the puck if he sees it. To beat him, the Rangers must create screens and bury rebounds, an area where they ranked 27th this season, according to the Athletic.
Special teams will come down to execution, as the Rangers’ power play finished seventh while the Devils’ penalty kills ranked fourth. If the Blueshirts aren’t passive and bring their shoot-first mentality to this series, they should make enough dents in New Jersey’s armor to be effective. On the flip side, New York’s penalty kill finished 13th, identical to the Devils’ man-advantage ranking.
USE YOUR MANPOWER:
As Henrik Lundqvist brilliantly said on MSG Network, “You play against great teams; you have to take away their biggest strength. For the Devils, it’s their speed, and the Rangers need to hit more and slow them down.” On paper, the Rangers are the deeper and more talented team. They boast a lethal top six in Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Patrick Kane, Chris Kreider, Vincent Trocheck, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Moreover, they have a third line filled with experienced kids in Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko and a fourth line loaded with grinders in Jimmy Vesey, Tyler Motte, and Barclay Goodrow.
The required “Dump and chase” style of play is what they imposed last Spring against the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning, which is where the “Experience” factor kicks in. Suppose New York plays disciplinary hockey in the neutral zone and uses their composure and physicality to frustrate the upstart Devils. In that case, they should be in an excellent position to win this series.
SHOWTIME NEEDS TO SHOW UP:
Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Chris Kreider will lead the Rangers offensively. Refrain from counting out trade deadline acquisition Vladimir Tarasenko, who had eight goals and 21 points in 31 games with the Blueshirts after being dealt by the Blues.
Yet if the Rangers outscore New Jersey, it will likely be because of Patrick Kane’s production. Although he has 12 points in 19 games since arriving on Broadway, Showtime hasn’t been the game-changer fans expected the superstar to be. True, Kane is no longer at the height of his powers. But he still showed he could be effective on a putrid Chicago Blackhawks team.
“The one thing you want to be known as is a playoff performer, a big game player,” the three-time Stanley Cup champion and former Conn Smythe winner said, “Here we are again.”
If Igor is even remotely close to the superhuman he was last season, the Blueshirts will be nearly impossible to overcome. There were times this season when Shesterkin looked shaky, but since the beginning of March, he’s gone 11-3-1 with a 1.98 GAA and .934 save percentage. Despite his previous struggles, the netminder finished the season fifth, with a +28.1 Goals Saved Above Expected. In contrast, Vanacek’s +5.1 Goals Saved Above Expected ranked 26th.
“You can see the focus between his eyes,” Rangers defenseman K’Andre Miller told NHL.com. “He brings that intensity to the rink. That’s everything. That’s what you want to see from your starting goalie.”