2012 NHL Eastern Conference Finals Q & A Outlook

By: Mike Luciano (@MikeLuci)

For fans of the two dominant hockey teams of the Tri-state area, the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals truly has truly presented a real treat. For the first time since 1994, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are facing off for an opportunity to represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals. Both teams possess distinct strengths and weaknesses but the way the teams match up will make for a very compelling series, regardless of the team that prevails or length of the series.

I got the opportunity to sit down with my good friend Glen Miller, a former writing colleague of mine that I’ve worked with before on previous websites and have managed to stay in close touch with. Despite being fans of rival hockey teams, we capitalized on the opportunity to get each other’s input on how we think our two teams match up going into this series and managed to break down the different aspects of this upcoming series.

Keep in mind this interview was conducted on Monday May 14th, 2012

ML: Of the four remaining teams in the 2012 playoffs, three of them (NY Rangers, LA Kings, Phoenix Coyotes) finished the season first, second, and fifth in hits, respectively. In this year’s playoffs, there appears to be a correlation between the more physical team coming out on top. What do you make of this particular postseason trend?
GM: The playoffs are a grind and there is generally less space and tighter checking in the postseason. Teams that play that way in the regular season are better prepared for the physicality and higher intensity in the playoffs. Playing the body, blocking shots, sacrificing the body have all become part of those teams’ fabric because they are conditioned since day one of the regular season to play this way.

AP

ML: Of the four remaining teams, the New York Rangers have the most blocked shots with 267. A lot of controversy has been stirred up regarding blocked shots and whether or not shot blocking has a place in the game. Although shot blocking is one of those things that doesn’t show up on the score sheet, how big of a role would you say that’s played in the Ranger’s postseason run?
GM: It’s part of the team’s identity and style of play. There are risks of course. Every time someone goes down to block a shot you risk screening your own goalie so that player better make sure he blocks that shot or it could end up in the back of the net. The Ranger skaters and Hank have an understanding; if they’re going to go down to block a shot they had better take away anything low. There is also the inherent risk of injury each time a player blocks a shot. Just last year we lost Ryan Callahan to injury late in the season and it kept him out of the playoffs. This year Mats Zuccarello blocked a shot late in the year and injured his wrist. He has yet to appear in the playoffs. Shot blocking has become a staple of the Rangers defensive play and they are effective enough with it that other teams, Washington for example, have begun putting more emphasis on blocking shots as well. In their first-round matchup against Ottawa, the Senators dominated several games in terms of puck possession and shot attempts. It was the Rangers ability to block so many of those shot attempts that helped propel them past Ottawa and into round two. Washington almost turned the tables on the Rangers as it was the Capitals that were the more prolific shot-blocking team for much of the series. For the series Washington blocked 169 shots to 111 for the Rangers. Game seven might have been the Rangers best defensive performance and for only the second time in the series they finished with more blocks than the Caps, 19 – 15. That’s not a coincidence.

ML: Although he’s presently second among points for the Rangers, Marian Gaborik’s only registered four goals this postseason. Although he stepped up immensely in the series against Washington, he hasn’t scored a goal against New Jersey since December and hasn’t registered a point against them since January. How do you forecast Gabby’s performance going into this series?
GM: I wouldn’t put much weight in his scoreless “streak” against New Jersey. At most we’re talking about a few games in the midst of a long season. I don’t think Jersey has some mystical formula for containing Gaborik; I think it’s merely a coincidence he was held off the score sheet since January against the Devils. Yes he’s paid handsomely primarily to score goals so if you focus solely on his output for the playoffs it might appear he isn’t playing the way we need him to play. But like any sniper, Gabby goes through stretches where he isn’t putting the puck in the net. That doesn’t mean he is playing poorly though. The main thing with Gabby is his skating. He is one of the most explosive skaters in the league and if he is going well then you’ll notice he is engaged all over the ice, making plays, hounding the puck and jumping into shooting lanes. He also needs to not shy away from going to the net. A lot of his goals this year have been scored from in close and he needs to go to the so-called “tough areas” of the ice. A prime example of how effective he can be by doing this without even recording a point is on the first goal of game seven in the Washington series. Gabby was stationed in front of Holtby’s crease and naturally drew the attention of one of the Caps defensemen who played in behind Gabby. Richards took the pass from Hagelin and rifled a shot that Holtby didn’t pick up. That had a lot to do with Gabby’s presence and the attention he drew from the Caps D effectively screening Holtby, making it difficult for him to pick up the puck. That being said he really started to play very well beginning in game three of the last round. If he brings that level of intensity and effort he’ll have a good series on the ice and on paper.

ML: The Rangers are going into this series after playing back-to-back seven-game bouts in the first two rounds. To my knowledge, no team has ever won the Stanley Cup after going through those circumstances. What concerns (if any) does this raise for the Rangers going into the first game Monday?
GM: Not much actually. There is a reason each player attended Camp Torturella last fall: To prepare themselves for the rigors of a long playoff run. This team is as well conditioned as any in the NHL and that has paid dividends in the postseason; particularly in the triple OT game three. The Rangers looked less fatigued in OT periods two and three than the Caps and had the better of the play as a result. I’m not discounting that the wear and tear of a long season and the huge minutes already put in by the Rangers top-four defensemen might not eventually catch up to them. I just don’t think they are any more susceptible than any other team remaining in the tournament because of their conditioning and preparation.

AP

ML: Whenever the Rangers and Devils play, it’s clearly unlike any match up for either team as there are several emotional and psychological factors that have to be considered when these two teams face each other. How much of a psychological element do you expect to see in this series?
GM: It’s apparent both teams just flat don’t like each other. However, the Rangers are all about taking care of business at this point. The intensity level will no doubt be high but aside from that I don’t see either team’s emotions getting the better of them. The teams essentially split the season series so there should be no added benefit for either club as a result. Sean Avery is happily enjoying retirement so no chance of activating him just to piss off Kovalchuk and Brodeur. I expect this to be a hard-fought series but no substantial psychological advantage to either club.

ML: Although the Rangers have defeated the eighth and seventh seeds in the Eastern Conference to get this far, it hasn’t been a cake walk for them. The Rangers have gone a combined 7-7 against the three teams they’ve faced in the playoffs this year. What do you think this says about distinguishing the mindset of regular season play from postseason play?
GM: As great as the Rangers regular season went, to a man every player indicated that success was meaningless once the postseason began. The regular season won/loss record between any two teams can virtually be ignored as that plays so little bearing on how the playoff matchup shakes out. What does matter in some cases is how the teams match up style wise. For example; Ottawa gave the Rangers tremendous difficulty during the regular season because of their speed and the puck-handling ability of guys like Erik Karlsson. Karlsson was able to consistently gain possession of the puck in deep and skate the puck out of danger and away from the Rangers forechecking. This led to a huge disparity in puck possession that nearly cost the Rangers in the playoffs as well as in the regular season against Ottawa. With New Jersey, I don’t see a significant advantage or disadvantage matchup wise for either club. To me it’s going to come down to who plays their style better than the other team and who capitalizes more on their opponent’s mistakes. Goaltending would favor the Rangers but Marty is capable of certainly keeping his club in games and perhaps even of stealing one.

ML: List one distinct advantage the Devils have over the Rangers.
GM: Off the top of my head I would have said scoring balance. After all, the Devils boasted three, 30- goal scorers in the regular season and two more with 20+. The Rangers had Gabby with 41, Cally with 29 and Richards with 25. No one else hit the 20-goal plateau for the Blue Shirts so it appears the Devils would have the advantage. The Rangers have the makings of quality scoring depth though. Brian Boyle netted 21 goals in 2011-2012 and despite a regression this year finished his season strong with five markers in his final nine regular season contests and three more in games one through three in the Ottawa series. He has yet to pot one since returning from a concussion though. Carl Hagelin started the year off in Connecticut but scored 14 goals in 64 games. That’s a rate that would have resulted in about 18 in a full schedule. And of course there is prized rookie Chris Kreider who has legit 30-goal potential. Derek Stepan has 38 goals in two NHL seasons. The pieces for scoring balance are there to augment Callahan, Gaborik and Richards. The Devils have a potent one-two with Kovalchuk and Parise but also have guys like Zajac, Elias, Clarkson, Henrique and Zubrus; all of whom are capable scorers. Where I ran into problems is when I looked at the actual numbers. While Gaborik and Richards have combined for 10 of the Rangers 33 postseason goals (roughly 30% of the team’s total) the Blue Shirts also have a total of 10 players with at least two goals and seven with at least three. The Devils meanwhile have 11 players with at least two markers and five with three goals. That certainly isn’t the decided advantage I expected to find and again, the Devils have played two fewer games than the Rangers and those numbers included the results from game one of the series.

ML: List one area in which the Devils are at a distinct disadvantage against the Rangers.
GM: Overall the Rangers are clearly better than New Jersey. Their top-four blue liners all skate well and move the puck effectively. Plus they have the game’s best goalie in Hank. It is conceivable that the big minutes the Rangers top-four log may catch up with them in a long series but that remains to be seen.

ML: Give us your most objective, unbiased prediction for the series; winner and number of games.
GM: Rangers in seven. They never take the easy route and the history between the two in the Eastern Conference Finals suggests it goes all the way. The Devils are a solid team employing an effective forechecking system. Brodeur has been good in the playoffs so they are certainly capable of pushing the series the full length. Again the Rangers earning home-ice throughout will pay off with a third game seven win at the Garden.

You can read more of Glen’s work on www.snyrangersblog.com. Once it’s posted up, I will provide the link to Glen’s half of the interview that you can view on his website. You can follow Glen on Twitter @gkmkiller.

You can find Glen’s part of the interview by clicking the link below…

http://nyrnation.net/ecf-preview-q-a-with-guest-blogger-mike-luciano/

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