With the LA Kings up 3-1 (in dominating fashion) in their series with the Coyotes, we will presume they will represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals. With the West set, we turn to the East, a conference that has seen favorites fall and no team have an easy run to this point. Left standing are the Devils and Rangers, cross-river rivals that have beaten each other to a pulp for decades. Their matchup in the conference finals harkens back to the days of Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Mike Richter, and, of course, Stephane Matteau (the most likely of all heroes).
The series currently stands at 2-1 in favor of New York, with the Rangers successfully withstanding waves of New Jersey attacks for the majority of the nine periods played thus far. For the purposes of this list, we shall work under the assumption that the goaltenders for both teams are the most important players on either side (whether you like it or not). Without Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi would probably be kissing his golf handicap bye-bye at this point, and Marty has stood on his head to make some game-saving stops in the first three contests. With that acknowledgement, let us examine the three most important players on each side at this point in the series, and how they will impact the final four games.
New York Rangers
3. Ryan Callahan/Derek Stephan
So I’ll instantly break the pattern and include two players at the #3 slot, but for Rangers fans, this makes a lot of sense. These two guys were crucial to the continued success of the team through the regular season and into the first round matchup with Ottawa, but they have been zeroes ever since. The Rangers’ offense has had its ups and downs this series, but two constants have been the lack of production from the captain and Stepan.
Some of Callahan’s struggles have resulted from the Rangers’ inability to keep the puck in the Devils’ zone for any extended period of time. Without that flowing pressure, Callahan is unable to set up shop around the goal – where he generally makes his living – and put the puck in the net. Stepan’s struggles have been a little different; as one of the guys the Rangers look to to carry the puck into the opposition’s zone, Stepan has been unable to create any space to make a play. Perhaps the Devils gameplanned well for Stepan, perhaps he’s a little banged up, but one thing is for sure: he will need to step up and create some space moving forward, or the Rangers will continue to have ugly periods like the first and second from Game 3.
2. Chris Kreider
As a Rangers fan having only seen a little bit of Kreider in the NCAA tournament, I was very ready to part with him for Rick Nash heading into the playoffs (though the total package Columbus was asking for was way too much – see below). So Kreider puts on the Ranger Blue and gets involved late in the Senators series, makes a huge splash, and has since been arguably their best forward in the playoffs (fans who see only stats will point to Richards).
All Kreider has done since he’s come up is play 15 games, with 5 goals and 2 assists to show for it (along with a -2 rating, which is quite misleading). Aside from the numbers, Kreider provides a pace the Rangers cannot keep without him. His combination of speed into the zone and strength on the puck is a rare blend the Rangers have lacked for… a decade? His speed allows him to create lanes to hit passes and get the puck on goal, as does his strength on the boards. It’s too early to crown him the next King of the City, but Chris Kreider is a major reason the Rangers have gotten this far. He needs to continue his high-energy play to help lead the Rangers past the pesky Devils.
1. Ryan McDonagh
If you’ve turned this series on at any point, then you are able to deduce who the best player from either team has been: Ryan McDonagh. As previously alluded to, McDonagh was one of the pieces the Blue Jackets were looking for in order to deal Rick Nash to the Rangers – a piece Glen Sather wisely kept in New York. The youngster from Wisconsin has had a monster playoff. For almost every blunder Dan Girardi makes on one side, Ryan McDonagh is there to clean it up. He has caught numerous potential breakaways from the backside, washing them all away with his speed and clean stickwork. The Devils have shown a tendency to sit at the Rangers’ blue line and wait for an outlet pass, so McDonagh’s alertness and ability to recover will continue to be one of the major keys to success for the top seeded Rangers. If anyone deserves the contract Rick DiPietro got, it is #27.
New Jersey Devils
3. Travis Zajac
Zajac isn’t the most talented player for the Devils, but as a top faceoff guy for them, he cracks this list. The Rangers have given up multiple goals after losing draws in their own zone, and do not have a single stud at winning faceoffs to boast about. The Devils have been pressing the Rangers in this series, and expect that to continue, so they will draw some penalties. The ability of Zajac to win some faceoffs could be crucial; go back to the Capitals series, where two defensive zone faceoffs ended up in the back of the net (one from Ovechkin). The Rangers haven’t had an answer for a high profile faceoff guy all playoffs, and that should continue for Zajac in this series.
2. Adam Henrique
Two rookies make this list, which is not the norm, but both have been able to push their team’s tempo and create good opportunities in the 2012 NHL Playoffs. Henrique, as Doc Emrick refuses to let us forget, is a candidate for rookie of the year in 2012, and his postseason has shown why. He’s one of the few guys on the Devils that can skate through the opposition and create his own shot. A major reason the Devils got through the Panthers in the first round, Henrique has the chance to take on a facilitators role down the stretch in this series. The Rangers’ D has been terrific, but someone with his speed may be able to stretch their back line and create lanes to find Ilya Kovalchuk, the ultimate spot-up shooter. Likewise, Henrique is one of the few guys the Devils have that can create an odd man rush out of nothing. His speed will be something to watch as this series moves forward.
1. Zach Parise
Parise is the best all around player on the Devils, and he needs to play like it. The physicality of this series has gotten to both sides, and the young center is no exception. He plays a similar game to Callahan for the Rangers, flying around with energy, freeing pucks, and and jamming loose ones home around the net. Thus far the Rangers have done well to keep him to the outside or swallow him up if he’s in the crease. With only 1 assist and a -4 rating in this series, the young star needs to step up his game and capitalize on the ample chances the Devils have had in front of King Henrik thus far in the series.
cover photo Debbie Wong- US PRESSWIRE