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Game 73 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Rangers

The Time: 7 PM EDT/4 PM PDT

The Broadcast: TV: MSG+ (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (43-25-4) vs. the New York Rangers (32-32-9)

The Last Devils Game: The start wasn't so strong, but the Devils' offense flexed it's collective muscle over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Three power play goals, two deflections by Travis Zajac, and Zach Parise scoring an absolutely gorgeous goal to make it six for New Jersey. The Devils won 6-3 and I praised (most of) the offensive effort in my recap.

The Last Rangers Game:  After falling flat on their faces in a must-win game against Boston on Sunday, they took out all of their frustrations on the New York Islanders on Wednesday night.  The Rangers put 44 shots on net, Marian Gaborik scored a brace (and earned three assists, he was all over the place), and the Rangers just trounced the Islanders 5-0 at MSG.  Surely, the Rangers faithful have to smile a little bit over this win?  Check out  the recap by Jim at Blueshirt Banter.

The Last Devils-Rangers Game: The New Jersey Devils were coming off two bad road losses in Calgary and in Edmonton.  The players talked about all of their struggled among themselves and resolved to perform better. They did just that all over their hated rivals on March 10, 2010.  Henrik Lundqvist was either left out to dry or beaten by some bad bounces, yet the Devils managed to chase him and put one past his back up Alex Auld. The Devils won 6-3 over the Rangers.  Here's my recap from that game; for a Rangers fan's perspective, here's a recap at Blueshirt Banter where the loss planted the seed of doubt in the minds of many Rangers with respect to the team's playoff hopes.

The season series is currently 3-2 for the Devils.

The Goal: Come out strong and continue to pour on the misery.  Originally, it was going to be "pour on the misery," but the Rangers dropped a nickel on the Islanders in a definitive beatdown of a game.  One could take this result two ways.  The first is to assume the Rangers took out all of their frustration on one opponent and won't have much left for the second half of their back to back. The second is to assume that the team will rally around the win and use that to stand tall against a hated rival who smacked them around the last time they came to this building.  I'm going to go with the second assumption as it's the worst case scenario.  To that end, the Devils would be wise to come out with crisper passes, smarter dump-ins, and good awareness in their own zone.  If they can get a good first period on the Rangers and get a lead, they can control the game their way from here on out and make a rival supporter squirm in their seat.

Check out Blueshirt Banter for a Rangers' fan point of view on tonight's game.  Read on after the jump for further thoughts.

Now, I wouldn't be so concerned about the Devils motivation, given what Martin Brodeur and Jamie Langenbrunner said at Wednesday's practice.  As reported by Tom Gulitti:

Although both Brodeur and Langenbrunner admitted that they didn’t know the Devils had a chance to clinch a playoff spot Thursday, they had been playing at least a little attention to the predicament the Rangers are in.

"We always do," Brodeur said. "It’s an interesting situation that they’re in. They need to get wins. They’re playing tonight and they’re going to play us tomorrow. That’s two big games for them back to back. Depending on what they do, it could really change a lot of different things the rest of the year. For us, we have one thing. It’s not to try to kick them out of the playoffs. We need to play well and do our thing. That’s the bottom line. We only play six games against them, so we can’t be blamed for anything."

Langenbrunner said there is some motivation to help eliminate teams from playoff contention, though.

"When you’re playing these games at this time of the year you’re trying your best to eliminate teams, yes," he said. "If not eliminate them, making them have to get points elsewhere, which could help you anyway. So, we definitely know that and are aware of trying to do something about it."

This tells me the team is focused moreso on the game rather than getting caught up in any rivalry hype. That's fine.  Moreover, as Gulitti noted today, the Devils can clinch a playoff spot with tonight's game should Atlanta fail to win in regulation against Toronto.  With the Penguins' shootout loss to Washington on Wednesday, the Devils are only behind by a single point with a game in hand. Two points make it a proper, if small, lead.   Basically, there's reason for the Devils to get out there and smack the Rangers in the mouth tonight.

From a number of the comments in the recap of the 6-3 win over Columbus, I sense much displeasure over Brian Rolston's performance. Plus, my own in the actual recap.  Well, prepare to rejoice as per Tom Gulitti's practice notes, Rolston was on the third line at Wednesday's practice.  Rolston didn't make the most of his opportunity, and so it appears the experiment is over.  (applause)   And he has been replaced with David Clarkson. (less vigorous applause, a few "huh?"s upon reading). 

The idea of trying Clarkson out on the second line right winger position is an interesting one.  Personally, and I said this in the Columbus recap, I'd prefer Dainius Zubrus at that position due to his size, strength, and abilities along the boards to win battles. Well, Clarkson's not as big as Zubrus, but he's pretty strong, he hustles pretty well so he should be able to keep up with Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk, and loves to play the body.  He's got some smooth moves of his own that he can bust out with the puck, and I don't just mean his wraparounds.  It's a move that might actually work.  

What's more intriguing is who was on the bottom two lines at practice. Vladimir Zharkov was on the third line - not the fourth - with Zubrus at center and Rolston at left wing.  Rob Niedermayer was centering the fourth line of Rod Pelley and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond; while Dean McAmmond was on the dreaded fifth line with the recently scratched Jay Pandolfo and often-scratched Andrew Peters.  

Personally, I'd be honestly surprised if McAmmond doesn't play tonight.  He's a good presence on the bottom pairing and he can play on a physical line as well as a more finesse group.  I'm sure Leblond and Pelley will be in as the Rangers will bring in their rivalry attitude, possibly some swagger, and some "beef."  So I'm not sure who really sits for Zharkov.  Don't get me wrong, I like Zharkov.  Giving him a game may not be a bad idea. I'm just not sure who sits for him - and no, it won't be Rolston so don't suggest it.

Basically, it's a gametime decision.  In the meantime, here's a wild guess at the lineup.  Again, I highly doubt McAmmond sits or that Niedermayer doesn't play center:

Zach Parise - Patrik Elias - Jamie Langenbrunner
Ilya Kovalchuk - Travis Zajac - David Clarkson
Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - Dainius Zubrus
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - Dean McAmmond - Vladimir Zharkov

Bryce Salvador - Andy Greene
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Paul Martin - Martin Skoula

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Expect this to be wrong during the day.  All the same, hope that Parise, Elias, Langenbrunner, Zajac, and Kovalchuk carry their strong games against Columbus into another good night.  

Meanwhile, in New York, I'm sure the Rangers fans are a bit baffled.  They were despondent after the 2-1 loss to Boston. A game against the eighth place Bruins. While being in ninth place. While the Bruins hold (and still hold) a game in hand on the Rangers.  Instead of pulling within one point, the lead for Boston increased.  They needed that win.    Via Blueshirt Banter, beat reporter Andrew Gross lamented the team's lack of heart after that game.  Even a beat reporter is fed up with the effort!   On Tuesday, in advance of this preview, I asked Jim Schmeideberg and Joe Fortunato of Blueshirt Banter just two questions:

Given that fan morale is low and the postseason is looking more and more unlikely, would it be fair to say that the Rangers winning the final game against the Devils this season would make some feel better about the team?  To that end, do you expect the team to raise their game against New Jersey?

I kept it open-ended but assumed that, hey, beating a rival team has to at least put a smile on one's face.  Jim quickly responded, I believe with the blessing of Joe Fortunato.

Unfortunately John you have given us two questions that can be answered in three words: no and no.

Ranger fans have resigned themselves to the likelihood that there will be no postseason for us this year. A victory over the Devils at this point will not be looked at as a "moral victory" , but rather a stumbling block to the high draft pick the fans covet.

As for the team itself, they have shown an unwillingness or inability (take your pick) to get up for games when they've had to, I see no reason to think this game would be any different.

If they're serious about the playoffs, then they have to be in a win-everything-and-hope-for-help mode. And that's exactly what happened on Wednesday against the Islanders.  Surely, the fans loved the five-point performance from Marian Gaborik and the easy shutout for Henrik Lundqvist.  Surely, they have had to enjoy the 44 shots on net and the relentless attack against a long-standing rival.  Questions abound: Was this just a one-time affair, or could it be the start of something huge? Would Jim respond the way he did had I asked him after Wednesday's game? After all, he said that the Rangers played their best game of the season in his recap.  Granted, he's still thinking the playoffs are a serious doubt.  But would other Ranger fans still hold on to a little sliver of hope?  Or at least just hope they beat the superior New Jersey Devils organization?

All I know is that it won't be an easy game, like most games between rivals.  Expect intensity from a team that literally has nothing to lose at this point and coming off a 5-0 win.  I would expect Lundqvist to start and be fresh, as even the recap stated how little work he got against the Islanders.   Expect Gaborik to be a force on offense, looking to continue do as he has been all season long: get points.  Expect Sean Avery to try and do, well, something this time.  Last night, he drew penalties and took shots against the Islanders; I'm sure he's not happy about being invisible the last time he was at the Rock (Hint: Devils, if you just ignore him, then he won't do much - exactly what you did on March 10 would work).

If the Devils can get off to a good start, cool the Rangers' heels, and control the game from that point, then that would be the best way to go into a tough road weekend with a win.    A Gamethread will be up later for game-time discussion.  I'll be commenting sporadically from my usual seat - Sec. 1, Row 5, Seat 16 - so join in then.  In the meantime, please place your thoughts, feelings, concerns, complaints, complements, corrections, and news updates (with links) in the comments.  Go Devils!