It's fitting that the New York Rangers have gone the distance in each of the first two rounds of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Although the top-seeded Rangers finished the regular season with 109 points, head coach John Tortorella's club is not a team that overpowers the opposition with offense. Instead, New York is able to wear the other team down thanks to its superb team defense and the steady net play of perennial Vezina Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist.
That style of play, which also relies heavily on blocking shots, has led to many close games for the Rangers in these playoffs. New York needed to win Game 7s on home ice in both rounds this spring, beating Ottawa, 2-1, in the conference quarterfinals and edging Washington by the same score in the decisive contest of the second round series.
As a result of their ability to grind out close win after close win, the Blueshirts find themselves in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1997. The last time New York was this far it lost in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers, but in 2012, the Rangers hope to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since winning their last championship in 1994.
The Rangers have scored a total of 29 goals through 14 games this postseason. While that's not exactly an impressive offensive output, New York has only surrendered 26 goals this postseason for a stingy average of 1.86 goals allowed per game.
Lundqvist is the main reason New York is so effective at winning close contests. Although he's yet to win the award for the league's best goaltender, the 30-year-old Swede grabbed a fourth Vezina Trophy nomination for his play this season and he was also named as one of three finalists for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL's most valuable player.
"King Henrik" went 39-18-5 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 2011-12 and he also posted eight shutouts during the regular season. Lundqvist has stopped 371-of-396 shots in the postseason for a 1.68 GAA and .937 save percentage.
Playing in front of Lundqvist is a stellar group of defensemen that is led by the top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who are both averaging over 27 minutes of ice time this postseason.
While McDonagh has just one assist in this year's playoffs, Girardi has recorded seven points on one goal and six assists, tying him for second in playoff scoring among defensemen this spring. New York's Michael Del Zotto leads all blueliners this postseason with eight points on two goals and six helpers.
Marc Staal and Anton Stralman have also produced offensively in the postseason, recording five points apiece through 14 games. Staal is another workhorse on the back end for the Rangers, averaging 25 minutes, 27 seconds of ice time per contest in the playoffs.
Stu Bickel rounds out New York's defensive rotation, but he is only averaging 4:55 of ice time per game.
Although Tortorella has shuffled his forward lines often during this postseason, the Rangers finished the series against Washington with Brad Richards centering a top unit along with wingers Marian Gaborik and Carl Hagelin.
Richards, a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner with Tampa Bay, is leading all Rangers' players with 11 points this spring. He has notched a team-high six goals and also scored just 92 seconds into Game 7 against Washington to set the pace for New York.
Gaborik, who led New York with 41 goals and 76 points in the regular season, has had an inconsistent spring, but the speedy Slovakian has managed to record 10 points on four goals and six assists. The rookie Hagelin has just three assists in the playoffs, but two of those helpers came in the decisive win over the Capitals.
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan is New York's top two-way threat up front and he is leading the team's forwards with an average ice time of 24:20 per contest. In addition to playing a key role on the penalty kill, the Rochester, New York native has posted three goals and three assists in the playoffs.
Callahan has been skating on the second line with centerman Derek Stepan and fellow winger Chris Kreider. Stepan has one goal and seven assists this spring, while Kreider has two goals and one assist. Kreider, who helped Boston College win an NCAA title last month, made his NHL debut in the first round against Ottawa and his speed has been a nice addition to the club's offense.
The Rangers would like to see Brian Boyle regain his scoring touch in the conference final round. Boyle scored a goal in each of New York's first three games this postseason, but the big centerman has recorded just one assist in six games since returning from a concussion suffered against Ottawa.
New York's biggest weakness appears to be getting results on the power play, but the club's production on the man advantage this spring is very close to its output during the regular season. The Rangers ranked 23rd in the league with a 15.7-percent success rate during the regular season and the Blueshirts have connected on 15.8 percent (9-of-57) of their power-play chances in the playoffs.
With Lundqvist in net and a strong defensive corps in front of him, it should not come as a surprise that the Rangers are difficult to score against on the power play. New York stopped 19-of-23 power-play opportunities in each of the first two rounds, giving the Rangers an 82.6 percent success rate (38-of-46) on the penalty kill.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS (6th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 48-28-6
2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Florida 4-3 in conference quarterfinals; defeated Philadelphia 4-1 in conference semifinals
(Sports Network) - Although the Devils finished just one point behind Philadelphia in the regular season, New Jersey entered the second round as heavy underdogs against the Flyers.
Philadelphia's status as the favorite in the Eastern Conference semifinal series was based on two things: the fact that the Flyers' offense looked unstoppable after scoring 30 times in six games against the Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1 and also that New Jersey needed seven games to eliminate an inferior Florida Panthers club.
As it turns out, the Devils had little reason to fear the Flyers in Round 2, as New Jersey overcame an overtime loss in Game 1 to record four straight wins against Philadelphia. As a result, the Devils are in the conference finals for the first time since winning the last of their three Stanley Cup titles in 2003.
Head coach Peter DeBoer and assistants Larry Robinson and Adam Oates deserve a great deal of credit for getting their troops to buy into a team-first mentality.
The Devils picked Philadelphia apart mainly because they played better as a team. From New Jersey's biggest star Ilya Kovalchuk all the way down to the fourth-line grinders, the Devils' biggest strength in the last round was their ability to pull together in the same direction.
Kovalchuk is enjoying the best postseason of his career as the Russian sniper had never been past the first round until this year's playoffs. He missed one game (Game 2) against the Flyers to rest a back injury and Kovy appeared to come back stronger than ever. After recording two goals and four assists in the final three games against Philly, Kovalchuk is leading all New Jersey players this postseason with 12 points on five goals and seven assists.
All told, New Jersey has posted 36 goals in 12 playoff games this season and 32 of those markers have come from the Devils' impressive group of forwards. Top-line center Travis Zajac is tied with Kovalchuk for the team lead this spring with five goals and winger Zach Parise has four goals and four assists.
The Devils have a great deal of experience up front with players like Dainius Zubrus, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, but rookie Adam Henrique, who is a finalist for this season's Calder Trophy, continues to impress. Henrique has two goals and five assists, and with a plus-six rating he is tied with David Clarkson for the best plus-minus among New Jersey forwards. Clarkson, who potted a career-best 30 goals in the regular season, has two goals and six assists in 12 playoff contests.
After failing to get a goal from a defenseman in Round 1, the Devils received four markers from blueliners in the conference semifinals. Bryce Salvador was the surprising offensive star for New Jersey's defensive corps against the Flyers, scoring two goals and adding an assist in the series. Known primarily as a stay-at-home defenseman, Salvador, who boasts a team-high plus-eight rating this spring, had registered only three goals and one assist in 50 career playoff games heading into this postseason.
Marek Zidlicky has been the workhorse on New Jersey's blue line this spring, leading the team in ice time with an average of 24 minutes, 38 seconds per contest. Zidlicky, who was acquired from Minnesota at this season's trade deadline, has one goal and five assists in this postseason.
Along with Zubrus and fellow defenseman Anton Volchenkov, Zidlicky was battling injury at the end of the last round, but all three players are expected to play in Game 1 of the conference finals.
Andy Greene and Mark Fayne also log considerable minutes at the back end for the Devils, while rookie Adam Larsson played well in limited use against Philadelphia.
Of course, Martin Brodeur is still manning the crease for the Devils and he rebounded nicely against the Flyers after struggling a bit in the opening round against Florida. The 40-year-old backstop has a 2.05 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 12 outings this spring.
Overall, the future Hall of Fame goaltender is 107-85 with a 2.01 GAA and 24 shutouts over 193 career playoff games.
In terms of special teams, the Devils have done a solid job of scoring on the power play in the postseason, but the team has room for improvement in killing penalties.
With a 20.9 percent success rate on the power play in the playoffs, New Jersey leads all clubs left in this year's tournament. The Devils, who had the NHL's top-ranked PK unit in the regular season, also have allowed 12 goals to the opposition on 46 power-play chances this spring. Only Philadelphia allowed more power-play goals in this year's playoffs.
As Atlantic Division combatants, the Devils and Rangers met six times during the regular season and each team won three of those tilts. New York held a slight advantage in goals, scoring 14 times in the season series while holding the Devils to 12 tallies over the six contests.
The Blueshirts have dominated the postseason history against the Devils, winning four of the five all-time playoff series between the clubs. New Jersey's only triumph came in the form of a sweep in the 2006 conference quarterfinals, but the Rangers avenged that loss by eliminating the Devils in five games in the opening round of the 2008 postseason.
This series marks the second time the Rangers and Devils will meet with a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals on the line. New York outlasted the Devils in seven games in the 1994 conference finals.
Fatigue could be a factor at the start of this series, as the Devils will have had five full days of rest between the two rounds compared to only one off day for the Rangers, who won their Game 7 against Washington on Saturday. The long layoff could also have an adverse effect on New Jersey as rust is always a concern for teams with considerable down time between rounds.
Richards had just two assists in six games against the Devils this year, while Gaborik posted two markers and three helpers in the season series. Hagelin was New York's most productive player against New Jersey this season, registering eight points (2G, 6A) over the six meetings.
Clarkson netted three goals and added an assist in six games against New York this season, while Kovalchuk had four points on two goals and two helpers. One concern for the Devils is the fact that Henrique struggled mightily against the Blueshirts this year, registering zero points and a minus-four rating in five games.
Brodeur started all six games against New York this season and went 3-3 with a shutout and a 1.99 GAA. Lundqvist was 3-2 with a 1.41 GAA and one shutout over five appearances against the Devils.
The Devils were able to dictate the pace against Philadelphia in Round 2 thanks to a relentless forecheck that forced the Flyers into committing tons of turnovers. New Jersey will have a difficult time getting the more conservative Rangers to give up the puck.
The Devils are also a better offensive team than either Ottawa or Washington, meaning New York may be called upon to open up a bit more to keep pace.
However, like so many series in the 2012 postseason, the winner of this matchup will be the team that gets the better performance from its goaltender. Although the Devils have one of the best netminders of all time in their crease, Brodeur is no longer his team's best player the way Lundqvist is for the Rangers.
In the end, expect the Rangers to wear down yet another opponent en route to their first Cup Finals appearance in 18 years.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Rangers in 6