Hockey looking back on its history is not usually a good thing. The game is better now, it’s faster now, there is more skill than ever before, and the sport is better off now that it’s moved out of its bar brawl past, even if Flyers fans still base their entire existence on thinking that’s how the game still works.
But that doesn’t mean the past doesn’t have lessons for every team. The New Jersey Devils certainly took a page out of what they used to be to throttle the New York Rangers last night at MSG, even if it only resulted in a pretty squeaky 3-1 win.
It’s still hard to think of the Devils as the flash-bang squad that they became this season. They are loaded with lightning-skated talent, led by Jack Hughes and his ability to make any game look like he’s being defended by a group of Wile E. Coyotes. But you hear “New Jersey Devils,” and any hockey fan above the age of 22 still thinks of mud-stained hockey, traps, and the not-little urge to slit your wrists while watching it.
The Devils have been pummeled in the first two games at home by trying to get the pace up to where they like it, which the Rangers easily swatted aside by being conservative and waiting to simply direct the Devils where they wanted them to go, got above them to loose pucks which led to a lot of New Jersey penalties and then they just decided to ignore Chris Kreider in front of the net. Matching 5-1 losses at home portended getting swept out on their ass in their first playoff appearance under this guise, and worse yet, to the fiendish big-timers from across the river.
The tide started to turn in Game 3 when the Devils throttled down, and then they hit the sweet spot last night. The Devils’ speed all over the ice allows them to do a couple of things at once. Rare is the team that can have both its d-men pinch aggressively in the offensive zone to keep pucks alive and deep and get their forwards where they want to be, but then easily retreat into a 1-2-2 neutral zone set-up that left the Rangers nowhere to go.
Here’s the thing about the Rangers. They’re not a great forechecking team, and they’re not a great (or even good) even-strength team. That’s why they depend on making place right outside or inside the opponent’s blue line, to open up space to carry the puck in and immediately set up. On the top six, only Kreider can be considered a plus forechecker, someone who can get the puck back after it’s just dumped in. The Rangers’ “Kid Line” of Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, and Alexis Lafreniere get a lot of pub for their energy, and they certainly do skate around a lot, but they actually suck at it. They were utterly helpless last night despite whatever bluster the broadcast made about them, they were all underwater in Corsi and expected goals. That said, they were the best the Rangers could muster because they were at least willing to try to chip and chase.
Because the Devils were simply sitting on their own blue line, with the middle “2” of the 1-2-2 squeezing against the defensive “2,” which cut off the cross-ice passes between the red line and offensive blue line that the Rangers need for oxygen. Every time they tried it someone was there to poke it away or break it up and force the Rangers to start again. It forced the Rangers to simply try and chip it into the corners behind, but again, they’re not really built for that.
The Rangers also don’t really have a d-man who can weave his way through one or two guys to break that down. Adam Fox can on a good day, but his big skill is really more when they are already set up in the offensive zone. Beyond him, you can forget it. There is no other candidate.
Even if they had more than Fox, the sharp end of the Devils’ neutral zone formation, that “1” is almost certainly a really quick forward who can at least pressure from behind and run that puck carrier into the rocks of the defenders standing up at their own blue line and cutting off the middle of the ice. The Devils won by simply letting the Rangers have the puck, especially after Hughes gave them the lead. And the Rangers couldn’t do much. And because the Rangers couldn’t generate much on a forecheck and recover loose pucks, the Devils didn’t have to take too many penalties and put the Rangers on the power play where they’ve feasted. They only took three all night, and none in the 3rd.
The Rangers were smothered
Even trailing for most of the game (the game was only tied for nine minutes), the Rangers only managed 43 percent of the attempts and 29 (!) percent of the expected goals at even strength. They were smothered. While he’s flashed on the power play and for maybe a shift here and there at even strength, whatever the rumored injury that Patrick Kane has been carrying for multiple seasons has left him looking like he’s skating through oatmeal when anyone’s around him. Vladimir Tarasenko used to be able to force his way through traffic and into space, but he can’t do it nearly as often now. This is the same problem the Rangers ran into last year when the Lightning made them create everything they could for offense, and they couldn’t do it.
The Rangers still have an enormous edge in net, as though Akira Schmid has only given up two goals in two games on the road he’s left rebounds all over the ice and still looks like he’s trying to hide his weed before the cops break down the door a lot of the time in the crease. Maybe he’ll calm down as he gets more playoff starts. Igor Shesterkin is still far more likely to steal a game. The Rangers also have more players who have turned playoff games on their own in the past, and only need a shift or two to do so. While the Devils have found a way to completely neuter the Rangers’ offense, it still tightens the margins of the game to a goal here or there. One moment of inspiration, no matter how much of an outlier it is to the game overall, can flip the whole series.
The alluring aspect of this series was the contrast in styles. The Devils are as rocket-fueled as it gets, and the Rangers have to turn things into a cage match to win. The Devils turned the tables on them. Do the Rangers have another gear?
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he wistfully remembers Sam Rosen and John Davidson doing Rangers games on WOR.