If there’s a lesson the New York Rangers should learn from game five, there’s a reason why the Stanley Cup playoffs emphasize will over skill. The mentality of the players and coaches changes, and so does the income. The league imposes no salary cap, and players’ yearly salaries are paid in full by the end of the regular season.
As these seven-game series wear on, the team with less finesse but more fitness has the better chance of emerging victorious because they’ve been playing that way since the ride began in October.
The latter is the New Jersey Devils, who have turned this Hudson River Rivalry upside down with their 4-0 thrashing of the Blueshirts on Thursday night in front of a raucous Prudential Center to take a 3-2 series lead.
The win allows them to complete the gentlemen’s sweep of their rivals on Saturday at 8 PM in game six at Madison Square Garden. A week ago, Devils fans left their home arena devastated. After compiling a franchise record 52 wins and 112 points in a surprising regular season, they’d been battered by the Blueshirts 5-1 in two straight games.
They were staring at the possibility of being swept out of the first round of the playoffs after waiting four seasons to get back there. That wouldn’t damper their future, of course. They have a budding young core led by captain Nico Hischier and superstar Jack Hughes, whose 99 points in the regular season set a franchise record. It would’ve been easy for them to give in to the Rangers’ skill and playoff experience.
Every move the front office made, highlighted by the acquisitions of Stanley Cup champions, albeit rental contracts and declining versions of Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, showed they believed 2023 was their time to reach the top of the mountain. “The Devils’ time will come, but it’s not now,” a New Jersey fan said after game two. “I wasn’t confident entering this series because I knew what the Rangers had, and I don’t think we’re there yet.”
A week later, he couldn’t be more confident about what lies ahead and what’s in the present. “Tonight was New Jersey’s most comprehensive game. They can afford to sacrifice offense with the way they play. It’s playoff-style hockey, one that could go a long way.”
The Devils may have entered the series as the higher seed, but the pressure was on New York, who had their highly-paid stars in tow to pull through. But while they looked as if they’d embraced the time of year with blowout wins in the first two tilts, they’ve allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the Devils and are 0-3 against rookie goaltender; Akira Schmid, who began the season in the AHL.
While he’s looked anything but a minor league netminder, posting a.975 save percentage since starting over Vitek Vanecek in game three, the Rangers have yet to do much to test the 22-year-old seriously. Trailing 3-0 entering the third period, you’d expect New York to give everything they had and fire shots from anywhere and everywhere toward the goal.
Yet when the final horn sounded, they’d been outshot 43-23 on the evening and 20-2 in the final stanza, with the lone tally of the frame being an Erik Haula empty-netter. “That’s not gonna cut it in probably any playoff series in this league,” forward Jimmy Vesey said. “Their goalie has been solid, but I don’t think he’s been tested enough. We have to find a way. That’s the bottom line.”
The bottom line is the team needs to admit to frustration and the need for adjustments. That’s what New Jersey did, and it’s worked. They’ve shown why they finished third overall in the regular season standings.
“At first, nerves and jitters got us, Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “You go back to Game 1; we didn’t handle the puck well. We talked about relaxing, and If you look at our puck play tonight, if you look at our breakouts, I think it was one of our best games in a long time.”
Tactically, they’ve stuck to the transition style of play that got them here with a few minor tweaks to bulk up the defensive end. Instead of their 2-1-2 zone, they switched to a 1-2-2 and put an extra forward back to clog up the neutral zone and stop the Rangers puck carriers from getting past the blue line or completing a cross-ice pass.
When the Blueshirts tried to dump and chase, the Devils kept their forwards to the perimeter and cleared the slot. That’s an area where Schmid has struggled to corral pucks, and the Rangers ranked 27th in offensive production during the regular season.
“We were a little too one and done. Adam Fox said “They capitalized on chances. They were just a step ahead of us.”