I’m going to invite the evil eye and all other manners of superstitious bad karma by saying the Devils will beat the Rangers to go on to the Stanley Cup Finals (against the LA Kings, who have taken the slot reserved for “One of Gretzky’s Former Teams”). I’m fully prepared to ward off all untoward energies, having packed my playoff towel and my “Chico Eats” t-shirt to enjoy the game remotely tomorrow night. The parallels to 2000 are plentiful: I’m in a Starwood hotel, watching a big game against a hated rival, and I’ll likely be yelling at the TV. In 2000, I got a call from a Westin front desk manager asking me exactly who “Freakin’ Brylin” was and if he could do what he was doing without me hollering. We know how that one ended up (I now stay at another hotel in the Boston area).
Without further historical arcana, here are four reasons the Devils are going deep(er):
Creativity. First the sports press said the Devils couldn’t get by the Rangers’ shot-blocking. Then it was the Rangers defensive scoring prowess. And the Lundqvist meme keeps surfacing like a bad Facebook virus. The Devils are winning by being creative, and for that credit goes equally to the players and Peter DeBoer. On the first goal in Game 4, Josefson set a huge scren in front (in his first playoff game); on the second goal Parise waited for the shot-blocker to slide wide, then fed Zajac. The oft-repeated basic tenet of hockey is to create time and space – time moving with the puck, space moving without it. The Devils are doing both to control the pace of play, and more important, control the shape of play in the attack zone. Leave your feet all you want to block shots — they’ll just skate around.
Responsibility: Parise decided not to talk to the media after Game 3, then came up huge in Game 4. Everyone is focused on the job at hand, and it translates into every little detail of the game. Was I sad to see Petr Sykora in the press box for Game 4? Yes, but the decision to play Josefson was smart. DeBoer is making good calls and the team is sticking with him, his decisions and his style. Elias may not have a point this series, but he’s running the forecheck from center or left wing, driving the power play from the half boards and killing penalties. The Rangers blue line gets the press, but Bryce Salvador has the highest plus/minus rating on both teams at +9.
Poise: The Rangers lost it in Game 4. Hagelin took two dumb penalties on either end of consecutive shifts. Mike Rupp lost any remaining fans he had in the Devils Army when he sucker punched Brodeur. Tortorella can whine about picks and missed calls, but that goes out the window when he races to the glass at the end of his bench, finger wagging, to scream at DeBoer.
Respect. While in the Tortorella vein, the same coach who made a stink about DeBoer starting his scrapper line (in March) sent out Bickel, Boyle and Rupp late in the third period of a game in which they were down two goals. The Rangers have had two players suspended during the playoffs for head shots, and Gaborik received an implicit gift for not having a sit-down with Shanahan regarding his elbow to the head in Game 4. The issue of respect is more than respect for the game or for your fellow athletes; it’s about conducting yourself with a high ethical standard at all times. A number of my regular Devils fan crew have tried to put our collective fingers on what we despise about the Rangers, and I think it comes down to respect – despite a storied arena, a 85 year old Original Six history, and a penchant for buying the premier free agents every season, the Rangers never seem to exhibit respect in any way, and it surfaces as an air of superiority or above-the-law behavior that is tiring even when not echoed by Rangers fans. That lack of respect shows up when Mike Rupp punches his former team mate, or Chris Drury deteriorates so badly he is bought out of his exhorbitant contract, or Scott Gomez forgets how to score goals and make plays (that time and space thing again), or why Bobby Holik believes he is the hockey themed Albert Camus whenever he opens his mouth.
For all that is good, fun, and competitive about a simple game played by simple men: Devils in 6.