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Game 81 Preview: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers

The Time: 12:30 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (37-38-5) at the New York Rangers (43-33-5)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted the Maple Leafs and things were going fairly well for them in a freeish-flowing game.  The Leafs and Devils traded blows, but the Devils came away better in the first two periods. Their power play looked like a power play and scored a goal; and they finished off two one-timers in the second to take a commanding 3-0 lead. However, special teams haunted the Devils as Toronto scored on their lone power play of the night and the Devils' power play hit a new low where in they allowed a shorthanded goal on a 5-on-3 situation.  Fortunately, the Devils got wise at 3-2, played sharper, and Patrik Elias sealed the game with an empty net goal to win 4-2.  My recap of the game can be found right here.

The Last Rangers Game: The Rangers hosted Atlanta in a bid to control their own playoff destiny.  They looked at the situation and decided to take the night off.  The Thrashers shocked them for two quick goals in the second and Eric Boulton tacked on a third.  The Rangers only put up 29 shots and lost 3-0.  Jim Schmeideberg used the word "Zero" four times in his recap of the Rangers' performance at Blueshirt Banter.

The Last Devils-Rangers Game:  Back on February 18, the Devils hosted the New York Rangers.  For once I'll be brief: the Devils dominated the Rangers in a 1-0 win. Just lovely domination: on offense, on defense, in tactics, and in overall performance.  The goal was a breakaway beauty from Ilya Kovalchuk.  It was glorious.  My recap of the win, complete with proof of domination is right here. For the other side, Jim Schmiedeberg at Blueshirt Banter has this short recap where in he whined about Glenn "Chico" Resch almost as much he discussed the game.

The Goal: Be absolutely prepared for a fight.  The Rangers are in a precarious position. After being in the top eight in the East for so long, they are in some danger of being knocked out.  Carolina pasted Atlanta 6-0 and the Rangers' perspective absolutely need a win to have some the best hope of getting in.  Regulation, overtime, or shootout - their shot begins and ends with a "W."  I repeat: they need a win.   They're going to be angry today. Angry that they blew it against Atlanta. Angry that they could miss the postseason on the final day of the season again.  Angry that they are playing a hated rival who completely owned them a month and a half ago and had to wait this long for revenge. 

I'm not saying they're definitely going to play like they are on fire; but the Devils need to go into MSG assuming that they will.  While the results won't change much for NJ, the last two Devils games showed that the team is most definitely interested in winning hockey games and not going through the motions at the end of the season.  However, they're going to be more than interested today. They're going to have to respond coolly and calmly to what should be an incredibly pumped-up Rangers team.  Especially if things don't go the Rangers' way early in the game.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For a Rangers' based take and general panic, please check out Blueshirt Banter.

On Friday, the Devils held their final full practice of the season.  Tom Gulitti asked the players whether or not they are looking to beat the Rangers today and the player's answers were diplomatic, to say the least.  I can understand the lack of chatter.  Don't misunderstand me. You and I want to see the Rangers thrown off the metaphorical cliff of misery.  It's the final game of the season against a hated rival and the game means a whole lot more to the Rangers in terms of the standings than the Devils.  Sunday's game is a lot like the Toronto game - essentially meaningless.  Rivalry games never are.  The Rangers are Our Hated Rivals and we'd love to see our favorite team, the good guys, and the never not proud New Jersey Devils hockey club contribute to their potential downfall.    But the players? They need to avoid giving the Rangers any more reason to get excited for today's game.

The Devils will unfortunately be short a few players for this weekend.  As reported by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice on Friday, Dainius Zubrus, Anton Volchenkov, and Colin White did not practice on Friday; and Jacques Lemaire has confirmed that they will not play.  Jay Leach and Mark Fraser will be on defense and Vladimir Zharkov will fill in the twelfth forward spot.  It sucks that those three won't be able to finish out the season, both from an experience, size (all three are big), and defensive standpoint.  Expect Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene to carry the heavy minutes once again; and look to see the forward lines little differently today.  Gulitti's report from practice has an indication on what they might be to start the game.

Zach Parise is also out.  As reported by Gulitti after the Toronto game on Wednesday, Parise's season was deemed to be over. No practices (he missed an optional on Thursday and Friday's practice) and no games (the two this weekend). So he played one game after being cleared, practiced a bit, and then is held out.  While it sucks for those of us who want to see him play, apparently management feels they are confident his knee is fine.  Per Gulitti's article, the decision was "non-injury" related, which makes me wonder whether the question was whether Parise can give 100% at the end.  After all, the Devils didn't go through the motions in Pittsburgh or against Toronto, they certainly won't today, and likely won't tomorrow.  If Parise wasn't confident in telling Lemaire and Lou that he can give his very best, then I suppose it makes sense just to end it.  

Who is in that you should keep an eye on?  Other than the usual (Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk), do watch out for Mattias Tedenby.  He was good in Pittsburgh and even better against Toronto.  Flying all over the ice, dangling and dekeing through players, and most impressively, willingly going into the boards to battle for pucks.  Perhaps he's hot.   Let's hope he is, as he could certainly help ruin the Rangers' day.

To the surprise of no one, Martin Brodeur will start today's game as reported near the end of this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice.   I would expect Henrik Lundqvist to get the start today since it's the last game of the season and it's a rather important one for the home team.  He's been great all season  It's not the time for Chad Johnson to get some minutes.

2010-11 - Henrik Lundqvist 67 3947 35 27 150 2.28 1939 1789 .923 11

Moving on to the opponents, the Rangers are in a difficult spot.  They are without the second-leading scorer, Ryan Callahan as his ankle got destroyed broken by a Zdeno Chara slapshot.  Their captain, Chris Drury, is questionable though he did skate on Friday per Andrew Gross at Ranger Rants.  Marian Gaborik isn't hurt, but some fans may wonder if something's wrong with him.  He hasn't scored a goal in 8 games and only picked up 3 assists.  At least Artem Anisimov - who has an 8 game goalless streak with only 2 assists earned in that timeframe - is young and developing; what's Gaborik's excuse?

The Rangers did wisely call up Mats Zuccarello, who has the team's top on-ice Corsi rate by far per Behind the Net. Sure, he doesn't face tough competition doing so, but peep the link.  The Rangers aren't exactly loaded with Corsi machines.  That is consistent with the fact that the Rangers aren't a good puck possession team - certainly not as good as New Jersey.  Per Andrew Gross' report at Rangers' practice on Friday, Zuccarello was skating with Erik Christensen and Sean Avery.  Let's hope the Devils' bottom six can handle such a combo.

The top line of Gaborik, Anismov, and and team scoring leader Brandon Dubinsky (24 G, 29 A) was kept together. Given that they contain 3 of the 4 leading scorers on the team who are still healthy, they will likely be the most dangerous unit this afternoon.  This is where the loss of Zubrus hurts.  The line of Patrik Elias, Zubrus, and Brian Rolston has been used to match-up against top lines for most of the last few months.  Now that Mattias Tedenby has replaced Rolston on that line, I'm a little worried whether that's a match-up the Devils want.  Depending on how John Tortorella uses the last change, that may be the match-up they'll get.  Either that or the Zajac line.

With respect to the defense, expect to see a  lot of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi today.  Staal has averaged over 25:43 per game this season and he didn't practice on Friday to get a rest.  He'll be logging huge minutes unless he magically turns into a pylon.  Girardi is his usual partner, as he has averaged 24:33 per game this season.  Both have over 100 shots on net, they'll support the offense by firing away, and assuming their on-ice Corsi is any indication per Behind the Net, they're used to playing in their own end quite a bit.   They'll get the toughest of the Devils forwards.   What's also noticeable about the Rangers' defensive game is that their penalty kill has been rather successful this season. They are 10th in the NHL with a 83.7% success rate; and they can boast one of the better shots against per 60 rate at 4-on-5 situations in the league with 49 per Behind the Net.  Even if the Devils get the benefit of several power plays, don't expect the Devils to somehow crack the Rangers on the PP.  The Rangers are a good PK team.  Plus, the Devils' power play usually ranges from "OK" to "Why can't they just decline the penalty?"

One final note: this game means everything to the Rangers this season. This game ultimately means nothing to New Jersey, they're out no matter what. So if the Rangers do pull out a win or get a consolation point, I fully expect you to be unhappy about it. I won't be happy about it.  Just please don't go off the edge.  It's not worth it.  If only because Carolina still has to have as many or more points than the Rangers by the end of tomorrow.  If that happens, Our Hated Rivals are out.  Keep that in mind.

What do you think will happen in the final road game of the season for New Jersey?  How do you see today's game going down?  Who are you keeping an eye on?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments.