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2023 NHL Playoffs First Round Series Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Our Hated Rivals

This post previews the upcoming first round playoff series between the New Jersey Devils and Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers, in the 2023 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Just about everything is covered from players to coaches to stats to narratives and so much more.

NHL: MAR 30 Rangers at Devils
A taste of what could be in this series.
Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NHL playoffs is a tournament where the champion has truly earned it. There may be favorable matchups but there are no scrubs. Every game matters. Every shift has the possibility of turning an entire series on its head. Heroes and villains are made in the playoffs. Memories and history are set in stone in the playoffs. The goal is the same: To win the Stanley Cup. Making the playoffs is a prerequisite to lift the greatest trophy in sports.

For the first time since 2018, the New Jersey Devils will be a part of the playoffs and have at least a chance to make run to see Lord Stanley’s Cup. They have had a historically successful season and a massive turnaround after one of their worst seasons ever. The playoffs can only add to how much they have accomplished. Of course, they will want to prevail in the first round. It is against the one team that no Devils fan, not one of the People Who Matter, want to see them lose to in any setting, much less the playoffs. Our Most Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers.

This post will preview the series between the two completely. Or close to it as possible.

The Basics

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (2nd in Metropolitan Division, 52-22-8, 112 points) vs. Our Hated Rivals a.k.a. the New York Rangers (3rd in Metropolitan Division, 47-22-13, 107 points)

  • The Series Schedule: From For the first round, there will be a local broadcast and a national broadcast except for Game 3, which will be on ABC and possibly Game 6. The local broadcast will be on the MSG family of networks.
  • Game 1 - Devils vs. Our Hated Rivals: Tuesday, April 18, 7 PM ET - MSGSN2 (MSGSN for the other side), TBS, TVAS2, SN360
  • Game 2 - Devils vs. Our Hated Rivals: Thursday, April 20, 7:30 PM ET - MSGSN (MSG for the other side), TBS, TVAS, SN360
  • Game 3 - Devils at Our Hated Rivals: Saturday, April 22, 8 PM ET - ABC, ESPN+, SN1, CITY, TVAS
  • Game 4 - Devils at Our Hated Rivals: Monday, April 24, 7 PM ET - MSGSN (MSG for the other side), ESPN, TVAS, SN360
  • Game 5 (if necessary) - Devils vs. Our Hated Rivals: Thursday, April 27 - MSGNSN, National TV to be determined
  • Game 6 (if necessary) - Devils at Our Hated Rivals: Saturday, April 29 - National TV to be determined
  • Game 7 (if necessary) - Devils vs. Our Hated Rivals: Monday, May 1 - MSGSN, National TV to be determined.

This is a favorable schedule in that there are no back-to-back sets of games. The only potential afternoon game would be Game 6, which may not be needed and could still happen at night.

The Context

The Set-up: It took all 82 games to clinch this matchup. The New Jersey Devils were chasing the Carolina Hurricanes all the way to the end. New York was chasing the Devils for second place in the Metropolitan Division. However, the Devils’ win over Buffalo in their 81st game secured second place in the Metropolitan Division and home ice for this series. The final game of the season between Carolina and Florida along with New Jersey and Washington would establish who finished first. Carolina prevailed over Florida 6-4, so despite the Devils beating Washington 5-4 in overtime, the Hurricanes finished first in the division by a point and will play the Islanders in the first round. This meant the Devils would play Our Hated Rivals in the first round.

The Injuries: Surprisingly, both teams should be healthy for this one. I am sure both sides have players carrying some kind of bruise or bump or something. But I can only discuss what has been brought up as an actual injury. That means no one as far as I am aware for Our Hated Rivals. For the Devils, Michael McLeod missed the last two games of the season after Brad “Exhibit 63” Marchand head-shotted him in the Boston game on April 8. Per Amanda Stein, Lindy Ruff said McLeod should be ready for the playoffs. The tweet also mentioned Timo Meier having suffered from food poisoning, but that should be hopefully sorted by Tuesday. The only player on the injured list for New Jersey would be goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who has been on long term injured reserve since the start of the season. Again, this series will start at full strength for both sides.

The Playoff History: Unfortunately, Our Hated Rivals have the historical edge. New Jersey is 2-4 in playoff series against them. They beat the Devils in 7 games in the first round in 1992. They prevailed in 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994 that the organization, fans, and Mark Messier will never stop bringing up decades later. They knocked out the Devils in the second round in 5 games in 1997. And they took down the Devils in 5 games in the first round of 2008. Out of all of these, only the 1994 series win led to anything of consequence. Which they never shut up about since it was the franchise’s first and only Cup win after World War II. (Fun fact: The Rangers went the entire Original Six era with no Cups. Six teams from 1942 to 1967, no Cups. Just five opponents in the league, and not one single championship won! Sad!)

The victories the Devils have are very memorable, though. The Devils swept Our Hated Rivals in 2006 as part of an undefeated April led by Patrik Elias Being On Fire. The most recent series between the two was in 2012 and it ended in 6 games with one of the most iconic goals - and calls - in franchise history.

The Hatred: Incredibly high. These two teams are constantly at odds with one another. New York wanted a ton of money for New Jersey to even exist and their fans felt (still feel, in some cases) they own the area much to the eye-rolling of Devils fans, Islanders fans, and anyone with a clue. They feel their team is like the Yankees despite a Knicks-level of historical success Devils management has had no love for New York. One of Lou’s first moves as Devils GM was to screw Our Hated Rivals over in a waiver draft, after all. It took over 30 years before the two teams even made a deal with each other - and even that happened just one time (in 2018, it was for Michael Grabner, let us not talk much about it). As with any rivalry, Our Hated Rivals always want to claim supremacy. Presumably they want to erase 2012, which was the last time these two faced off in the playoffs, as they try to not-quit their way to not winning another Cup. The New Jersey Devils are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and the last time they won more than one playoff game was back in 2012. Their last playoff series win was against Our Hated Rivals. After finishing third in the NHL and ahead of New York, the Devils presumably want to do more than just be happy to play more than 82 games this season. Beating their bitter rivals in the playoffs would make this historic season even more beloved. The fanbases are always up to see the other squad suffer - especially if it is at the hand by their favorite team. It is not a matter of if it will get heated, it is a matter of when - and how much.

The Home & Road Splits: Surprisingly closer than you think. Devils finished 10th in the NHL by going 24-13-4 at home with 52 points. Our Hated Rivals finished 14th at 23-13-5 with 51 points, which is closely behind the Devils. On the road, the Devils finished second to Boston by going 28-9-4 on the road for 60 points. New York was also successful away from MSG by going 24-9-8 for 56 points. The point is that both teams are capable of winning at the Prudential Center (the Devils’ home) and Madison Square Garden (home of OHR). Except OHR did not win at the Prudential Center this season.

The Season Series

The Devils won the season series by going 3-0-1 for 7 out of a possible 8 points in 4 games against OHR.

Two post-regulation games, a one-goal win, and a two-goal-with-an-ENG win. If the four season games are any indication, expect a lot of close and stressful hockey. The neutral fan will love it. Many of the People Who Matter will be agonizing over how thin the margins of victory may be, knowing that a whole lot of bragging rights and the right to move on to the second round is at stake.

Across all four games, the Devils went 2-for-11 on power plays and killed 8-of-11 shorthanded situations. The Devils’ leading scorer in the regular season series was Jack Hughes with 4 goals, 2 assists, and 28 shots on net. Yegor Sharangovich was the only other Devil to score more than one goal with two. Dawson Mercer, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Tomas Tatar, Michael McLeod, Timo Meier, Damon Severson, and Erik Haula each had a goal. For the other side, K’Andre Miller has the most points in the season series with five assists. Chris Kreider had three goals, Vincent Trochek had two, and one was scored each by Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Julien Gauthier, Artemi Panarin, Jimmy Vesey, and Mika Zibanejad.

If you want to use the season games to identify who the major scoring threats are, Hughes and Kreider would be it. Makes sense for Jack Hughes; The Big Deal put up 99 points this season. Kreider had 36 goals and 54 points, but he is a bit behind Zibanejad in goals and way behind his 91 points.

In terms of goalies, Igor Shesterkin has been it for New York. He started all four games against the Devils and posted a 90.7% save percentage in all situations. The Devils have opted for Vitek Vanecek in all four games against OHR; posting a 90.8% save percentage in all situations. Neither really out-performed the other by anything resembling a significant amount.

The Forwards

In order of 5-on-5 ice time per Natural Stat Trick (and one addition for NJ):

New Jersey: Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, Tomas Tatar, Nico Hischier, Erik Haula, Yegor Sharangovich, Michael McLeod, Miles Wood, Jesper Boqvist, Ondrej Palat, Nathan Bastian, Timo Meier, Curtis Lazar - 5v5 Player Stats (min. 200 minutes), Summary Stats

What makes the Devils so dangerous is that head coach Lindy Ruff has been free to move his forwards around lines as needed. The team is not performing well? Why not mix things up and put Haula with Hughes? It kind of worked. Someone having a rough night? Someone can step in for an extra shift and move someone down. With five different forwards scoring 20 or more goals this season plus Timo Meier (9 with NJ, 31 with San Jose), it is hard to say it is not functional.

Recent weeks have seen Hischier lined up with Mercer and Tatar for a line that has crushed it in 5-on-5 play with some real scoring potential. All three have potted at least 20, with Hischier putting up 80 points. Hughes has been a point machine all season long, finishing with 99, and he has recently lined up with Bratt, who had another 70+ point campaign, and Palat. The bottom six has been a bit more fluid with Haula, who has finally found some scoring touch after spending the first three months missing glorious chances left and right and above; Meier getting some time with them to exploit matchups; and Jesper Boqvist flying in to chip in on the forecheck and in front. A fourth line of Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian has been energetic occasionally and may be the weakest of the four lines. But McLeod and Wood have literally and figuratively picked up the pace recently, what with Yegor Sharangovich and Curtis Lazar (didn’t make the time requirement but could be playing, he was hurt shortly after being acquired) potentially drawing in on the bottom end.

For the first time in a long time, the Devils’ forward group is a legitimate strength. They have enough high end scorers to spread out their talent throughout the lineup. They have skill on three of their four lines to support activating defensemen and enact rush plays in transition. Some of the forwards are weaker than others when it comes to backchecking. And that fourth line plus Haula can be a concern for penalties. Yet, they have been able to handle their business more than well enough for the team to post some fantastic on-ice rates in both ends. Ruff has mixed things up enough such that he can make adjustments without worrying of whether it will be a disaster or not. Which also makes it tougher for opponents to adjust to changing match-ups. The future seen in Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and Mercer is now and it is well supported with Meier and veterans like Tatar, Haula, and Palat.

New York: Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck, Chris Kreider, Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, Filip Chytil, Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrick Kane, Tyler Motte - 5v5 Player Stats (min. 200 minutes), Summary Stats

The Rangers’ forwards have stars leading the way. Panarin and Zibanejad have been utterly fantastic in Manhattan. They finished this season with 92 and 91 points, respectively. Chris Kreider has also been a core forward what with 36 goals, 54 points, and just 26 penalty minutes that suggests he has learned to stop skating into goalies. The star power of those three have been further boosted by the acquisitions of Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane. While older, both were ace scorers for St. Louis and Chicago respectively and still have plenty left in the tank. With 21 points in 31 games for Tarasenko and 12 points in 19 games for Kane, it is clear that both are able to do some damage. They supplement the great production from Vincent Trocheck and an apparent “Kid” Line of Filip Chytil (22 goals, 45 points), Kaapo Kakko (18 goals, 40 points), and Alexis Lafreniere (16 goals, 39 points). Players like Goodrow, Vesey, and Motte chip in. Those acquisitions of Tarasenko and Kane may be short-term, win-now moves but they have been able to contribute more than the likes of Julien Gauthier, Sammy Blais, and Vitali Kravtsov among others. It further solidifies the forward group.

It is a quality group. Panarin and Zibanejad alone can ruin entire team’s nights. Both have been utter nightmares for defenders and goalies and this season is no different. Trocheck and Kreider follow them up quite well. If there is an issue, then it is that some of these forwards are basically one-way players. Panarin, Trocheck, Kreider, and the Kid line can handle business in 5-on-5 well enough. Not exceptional, but good. Kane, Goodrow, Motte, and Tarasenko have witnessed a lot more opposition offense than they have witnessed by their own team. Which is especially bad for Kane and Tarasenko because if they are pinned back, then they really add little to the team. And Kane and Tarasenko play much more than the Goodrows, Veseys, and Mottes of the league. It is a vulnerability up front. If a team can expose that and somehow limit Panarin, Zibanejad, Trocheck, and Kreider, then they have a real advantage over New York.

Who’s Better: Slight lean to the Devils. The Meier acquisition, the amazing seasons of Hughes and Hischier, the repeat of greatness from Bratt, the improvement of Mercer, and emergences of Haula from an utter black hole of scoring and Tatar from a not-impactful 2021-22 have really made the Devils’ forward group into something that can hang with any team. I cannot say the Devils have a full advantage given the legitimate studs on Our Hated Rivals. But the Devils have more to offer up front. No, the Devils do not have two 90+ point scorers like New York. They do have three 70+ point scorers and far fewer passengers in 5-on-5 and on defense. If the Rangers want to turn this into a race, the Devils forwards will be more than happy to oblige. The Ranger defense, well, they probably would not want that smoke.

The Defensemen

In order of 5-on-5 ice time per Natural Stat Trick (and one addition for NJ):

New Jersey: Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, Damon Severson, Ryan Graves, John Marino, Brendan Smith, Kevin Bahl, Luke Hughes - 5v5 Player Stats (min. 200 minutes), Summary Stats

The Devils’ defense received some real improvements compared with last season. John Marino for Ty Smith was a huge upgrade. Marino and Ryan Graves have been deployed for tough matchups. While the offense has taken a hit when they are out there, Marino’s relatively low CA/60 and SA/60 points to that gambit working out. It also allowed Damon Severson to play easier minutes on a third pairing and absolutely rule it in the run of play aside from his occasional catastrophes. Further gains were found in the depth. Brendan Smith was signed to be a #6 defenseman and despite his lack of speed and penchant for penalties, he has done a good job in 5-on-5. Kevin Bahl has been given the chance to take Smith’s spot and has done so by being more disciplined than Smith while providing about the same results.

Going to the top of the blueline, Jonas Siegenthaler continued to blossom as a defender and Hamilton was an offensive machine. Hamilton shot 275 pucks, tied the franchise record for goals by a defenseman (22), and became the first defenseman in franchise history to break 70 points since Scott Stevens (74) did it in 1993-94. This production points to the secret sauce of the Devils’ 5-on-5 play. The defensemen are encouraged to activate in offensive zone possessions and create/join rushes in transition. That is not only a big reason as to how Hamilton racked up so many points but also how a guy like Ryan Graves has eight goals this season.

That does point to the one weakness of the Devils defense. They can get caught if their activations are disrupted or the opposition can beat it. In general, the Devils skating have been caught guilty of overloading to the puck carrier’s side or puck-watching for goals against. When the Devils are more aware - such as in their last game against OHR in March - then they can lock it down better than anyone. And they can start the attack to create more offense to put the defense on their heels. Hamilton can do this. Severson can do this. Even Marino, Siegenthaler, and Graves can do it in a pinch. Should Lindy Ruff be bold enough to give Luke Hughes a playoff taste, then Luke Hughes can show he can do it at age 19.

New York: K’Andre Miller, Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, Braden Schneider, Ryan Lindgren, Ben Harpur, Niko Mikkola - 5v5 Player Stats (min. 200 minutes), Summary Stats

In 5-on-5 play, the defensive metrics of the Rangers have been good. Their issue has been in the creation of offense. This is not an issue when former Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox is on the ice. He does not have 12 goals and 72 points by an accident; he is to the Rangers what Hamilton was to the Devils this season even if Fox does not shoot the puck nearly as much (159 shots compared with Hamilton’s 275 and even Jacob Trouba’s 199). He is their main threat in both ends of the rink . K’Andre Miller has blossomed in this past season to be a main part of their blueline and will be for years to come. He is not as offensively skilled as Fox but he is very capable of keeping offensive possessions going while handling business in his own end. Like Fox, Miller did not luck into 9 goals and 43 points. Ryan Lindgren has been far less productive, but his on-ice rates are similar to Fox’s defensively - and as such he is a valued member of the defense. Jacob Trouba may be overpaid and overrated but he has been a positive player in 5-on-5. When he is not trying to throw elbows or being mad on the ice, he can be effective.

The issue with the Rangers’ defense is the rest of the group. Beyond those four defensemen, the other defenders have some ugly on-ice rates and far from enough offensive production to make one live with it. Braden Schneider is still developing as a 21-year old defenseman, but he is second to Ben Harpur for the worst on-ice rates among Rangers defensemen in 5-on-5. Related to that: Harpur has been picked on repeatedly this season and there is little reason to think he is doing a good job just because Shesterkin and Halak bail out the team when he takes a shift. The Rangers have initially tried Libor Hajek and Zac Jones ahead of Harpur with little success, which helped drive them to get Niko Mikkola from St. Loyis. Mikkola is statistically better than Schneider and Harpur. He is still not good with a CF%, SF%, and xGF% solidly below 50%.

Who’s Better: Solidly in favor of the Devils. Fox is a great player and Miller is a very good player and will be for years to come. Lindgren is useful and Trouba is not a total anchor at $8 million per season. But the issue for New York is clear. Once you get past Fox, Miller, and Lindgren, the quality drops off. For the Devils, they have three pairings that can support an attack, join an attack, and defend their zone. The stats justify this and the Devils can even rotate in a Smith or even Luke Hughes and not be worse off for it. An opponent can keep Hamilton and Siegenthaler under wraps and still struggle against New Jersey’s defensemen. An opponent of New York has not and will not struggle so much against Schneider, Mikkola, or Harpur unless those defenders are playing way above their heads. That is the difference and it could be a big one in what could be a tight series.

The Goaltenders

New Jersey: Vitek Vanecek, Akira Schmid, Mackenzie Blackwood

The #1 goalie for New Jersey is Vitek Vanecek. With 52 appearances and an overall save percentage of 91.1%, Vanecek provided the decent amount of goaltending the Devils sorely missed in the past four seasons. Perhaps better than decent given his 92% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations and stopping about six to seven goals below expected per Natural Stat Trick. He was very good in shorthanded situations with an 89.2% save percentage, conceding seven goals fewer than expected per NST’s model. Vanecek has been capable of very good performances and has performed in tough situations. Such as starting and finishing all four games in this season’s rivalry matchup. He will be the Devils’ expected starter for this series.

Due to injuries to Mackenzie Blackwood, Akira Schmid was called up in November and later in March to fill in as Vanecek’s backup. Schmid out-played Blackwood. He even posted a perfect 20-save relief effort of Blackwood in Game #82, wherein Blackwood was beaten four times on eleven shots. Statistically, Schmid should be the #2 goalie given his overall save percentage of 92.2% from 18 games over the inconsistent 89.3% save percentage of Blackwood from his 22 games.

New York: Igor Shesterkin, Jaroslav Halak

Igor Shesterkin has picked up where Henrik Lundqvist has left off. Kind of. Whereas Lundqvist could credibly claim to the best goalie in the tri-state area, Shesterkin cannot do that this season given Sorokin is in Belmont. Still, Shesterkin is still quite good. A 92.7% save percentage in 5-on-5 is rather strong. As is stopping a whopping 24 goals fewer than expected in 5-on-5. While he was more human in shorthanded situations, an 85% save percentage on the PK plus giving up two fewer goals than expected is not too bad. Halak has been an adequate backup; worse than Shesterkin in 5-on-5 but very good in shorthanded situations. However, there is no question who runs the crease in Manhattan. Shesterkin started all four games against New Jersey and will be expected to do so again.

Who’s Better: The Rangers - to a point. Shesterkin has the ability to become a wall and he has an earned reputation for being a great goaltender, such as last season when he put up a mind-boggling 93.5% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations. But this season has not been as excellent and so Shesterkin is less of a major threat. That ability did not totally appear against New Jersey except in that fourth game. Which the Devils still won 2-1 and it could have been 3-1 save for a post being hammered in the third period. That is why I added “to a point” instead of something that favors New York fully. Shesterkin was pretty much on the same level of Vanecek when they played each other. The Devils should not fear Shesterkin based on their previous four games against him. They will need to keep spirits high if he gets into a kind of groove. Something the Devils have done time and time again this season (e.g. Darcy Kuemper, Devon Levi, Pytor Kochetkov, etc.). I think they can do it again. As for Vanecek, he is capable of providing big stops to keep the Devils in games. I am more concerned with the skaters helping him out consistently than I am with him in the crease. That all stated, the Rangers have the edge even if it is not as large as it would have been if Shesterkin was playing like he did last season.

As a quick final point: I am not worried about who the backup is and you really should not be worried either. If Shesterkin goes down, then New York is worse off with Halak in net. Simple as. I agree that Schmid should absolutely be ahead of Blackwood in the goalie order, which does exist as Ruff stated he’ll have three goalies on the roster to start the series per Mike Morreale. However, if either is in the crease, then either Vanecek got wrecked or hurt - and both are bad. The season series was Shesterkin vs. Vanecek in the nets and no one else. That will mostly likely happen in this playoff series.

The 5-on-5 Play

The most common situation in hockey is 5-on-5. Most games are played in it. Now that it is the playoffs, even overtime will be 5-on-5 hockey. This is not to say that whoever is the superior team in 5-on-5 always wins, but the very good teams tend to be very good in this common situation. For this series preview, let us see how the two teams stacked up in 5-on-5 metrics from this past season as per Natural Stat Trick. While a playoff series may not always be representative of the regular season series of games (and OHR fans hope it is not), 82 games of information will tell us a lot more about whether or not a team is good in this situation. (For this and the next two charts, cells in green represent a top-ten ranking, cells in red represent a bottom ten ranking.)

Devils and Our Hated Rivals 5-on-5 team stats in the 2022-23 season
Devils and Our Hated Rivals 5-on-5 team stats in the 2022-23 season
Natural Stat Trick

The numbers bode very well for the Devils in 5-on-5. It is not so much that New York has been absolutely terrible in 5-on-5. They have still outscored opponents by 27 goals in 5-on-5. However, it has been a point of concern all season long. Finishing just below 50% in all categories except for shots means that their opponents have been able to get opportunities to hang in games. New York has demonstrated a decent to good ability to defend but not so much for creating offense. Fortunately for OHR, shooting over 9% for the season and having good goaltending has made up for that shortfall.

Unfortunately for OHR, the Devils can and did out-perform them in 5-on-5 hockey in their four games this season. Sure, the games were close. Sure, two required overtime. But the Devils have been able to push the play against New York along with a whole lot of other opponents. The Devils were up there with Carolina and Florida as leaders in the NHL in this most common situation of play. It explains how they have been able to make so many comebacks. It explains how they have been able to close out games they do lead in, even with a goal or two. It explains how the team has had so much production as most of the Devils skaters contribute positively in 5-on-5.

At a team level, the Devils would be very wise to keep this series at 5-on-5 as much as possible. While both teams have played quite a lot at 5-on-5 compared with the rest of the league, the situation has favored the Devils. It is where they have excelled all season. Such as in the four games against Our Hated Rivals.

At a player level, it is shorter to list the Devils with an on-ice Corsi For% below 50% and an expected goals for percentage below 50% as per Natural Stat Trick. So I will. For Corsi, that would be none as the three Devils below the breakeven mark are now Sharks or in Utica. Among regulars, Michael McLeod finished at 50.52%, Nathan Bastian finished at 51.1%, and Miles Wood finished at 51.26%. That has been the most common fourth line for the Devils this season; fitting that they would be on the lower end of a team that can boast eight regulars with a CF% above 55%. For expected goals, only Wood finished below 50% and he barely missed it at 49.85%. Bastian has been better by this metric while McLeod is just ahead of Wood. Again, the fourth line is the weakest part. The top six and defensive depth is the strongest with Tomas Tatar and Damon Severson breaking 60% xGF% and Timo Meier and Nico Hischier coming so very close.

This is a huge advantage over New York. Only 13 of their 30 skaters this season finished above 50% in CF% and only 9 finished above 50% in xGF% per Natural Stat Trick. In their defense, that number includes Adam Fox, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck, and Ryan Lindgren. Those are key players for New York. It also suggests that the Devils really need to push win the battles when they are not on the ice. They have the personnel and the depth to do so, not to mention home ice for the first two games to set up favorable matchups.

One last note: It is also an advantage that the Devils have a top-ten scorer in 5-on-5 situations in Jack Hughes. His 28 goals and 28 assists in 5-on-5 put him in a tie with Elias Pettersson and Jason Robertson for seventh most in the NHL. Artemi Panarin is no slouch with 19 goals and 31 assists for 50 points to finish 20th in the NHL in 5-on-5 scoring. If you go a little deeper, Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt all finish in the top 50 in 5-on-5 scoring while Vincent Trocheck and Mika Zibanejad just made it in a big tie for 50th. If you want to know who the big scoring threats at 5-on-5 are, it is those players for each side.

Who’s Better: The Devils.

The Power Play

Power plays can absolutely turn the tide in any game. Punishing an opponent for a foul feels good. In what could end up being a series of close-score games, an extra goal or two with a man advantage can play a big role in how the series is played.

Devils and Our Hated Rivals Power Play team stats for 2022-23
Devils and Our Hated Rivals Power Play team stats for 2022-23 and Natural Stat Trick

As the opposite of the 5-on-5 play, the numbers bode very well for the Rangers in power play situations. It is not so much that the Devils have been bad on power plays. Sure, they have wasted some opportunities, but the non-statue power play systems have yielded a more effective power play in New Jersey. Their rates of offense are good. They are not far behind from the expected goals model and they are not ice-cold with their shooting. A success rate of just under 22% is good.

The issue is that New York has been better just about across the board. Higher rates of shot attempts, shots, and scoring chances. Not only a higher rate of expected goals, but also a higher rate in actual goals. New York had ten more power play goals than New Jersey. They drew more 21 man advantages and they have conceded three fewer shorthanded goals. The only stat New Jersey is better than OHR in power plays this season has been shooting percentage. Even that is only a difference of about 0.5% - which is not that big given how much New York generates in these situations.

For the Rangers, the main threats on the power play are Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. Zibanejad scored 20 of the Rangers’ 59 power play goals this season and helped another 19 happen. Panarin scored nine goals and set up 27 others. Zibanejad leads the team in power play shots with 98 and Panarin is second at 68. Both have been wizards in man advantage situations all season long. They would be the main ones to worry about. This is not to say that others are not involved. Fox has 28 power play assists to go with his one goal; he will be heavily involved. Kreider and Trocheck round out the primary unit with 17 points apiece, but Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko could (and likely will) be heavily featured here, most likely in place of Trocheck. They have not provided much on power plays in their short time in New York, but they absolutely can. For a secondary unit, expect to see part or all of the “Kid” line and Trouba. New York’s power play is carried by the primary unit - and it will ruin the Devils if they are given plenty of opportunities to do so. Suggestion for the Devils: discipline will be crucial.

For the Devils, the primary unit leads the way as well. It just has not been as good as the Rangers. It did receive a boost from Meier. On paper, a five-man group of Hamilton, Hughes, Bratt, Hischier, and Meier can do a lot of damage. In reality, it has not produced as much as one would have liked. Meier has four power play goals in 21 games with New Jersey. This joins Hughes (9 PPG, 31 PPP), Hamilton (8 PPGs, 28 PPP), Bratt (8 PPGs, 22 PPP), and Hischier (7 PPG, 19 PPP) as being among top five goal scorers on the power play this season. This also speaks to how little the secondary unit has provided. That unit has included Dawson Mercer, Erik Haula, Damon Severson, Tomas Tatar, Miles Wood, and Ondrej Palat at times this season. They have combined for nine power play goals total. If the Devils are able to set up or create space for a rush up ice, then they can punish the opposition just fine. But aggressive penalty killing opponents or a sloppy effort at moving and maintaining puck control can defuse the Devils’ power play. Get them to their secondary unit and the penalty kill is more likely to succeed.

Who’s Better: The Rangers.

The Penalty Kill

As much as penalty calls in the playoffs are even more unreliable and inconsistent than they are in the regular season, a team is bound to have to kill off some shorthanded situations at some point. Being able to kill off a penalty will not only keep the score as-is, but also wear down offensive players for a few shifts before the normal 5-on-5 flow of lines returns.

Devils and Our Hated Rivals Penalty Kill team stats in the 2022-23 season
Devils and Our Hated Rivals Penalty Kill team stats in the 2022-23 season and Natural Stat Trick

The Devils ended up among the most successful penalty killing teams in the NHL this season while OHR is a few spots above the league median. The margin of difference is just 1.4% but it speaks to how tight it was for the various teams in the NHL. Still, the Devils have the edge on the Rangers in most shorthanded metrics. The Devils have conceded fewer goals. They have lower rates of shot attempts, shots, and chances allowed. They have a better expected goals against rate and an even better actual goals against rate. Goaltending, as a team, has been better for New Jersey. The only part is, surpisingly, ice time and the number of shorthanded situations. Despite Trouba’s elbows and Kreider’s past reputation, the Rangers are among the least penalized teams in the NHL this season. That said, this is kind of the inverse of the power play section. OHR are quite good on the PK, but the Devils are just better than them and among the best in the NHL.

For the Devils, the main penalty killers have rotated a bit. John Marino has the most shorthanded ice time, but Ryan Graves and Jonas Siegenthaler have followed him as the only other defenders with an average of over two minutes per game on the PK. Marino and Graves have played a lot together in 5-on-5 (nearly 841 minutes!), so I would expect that to be the primary PK pairing unless one is in the box. The secondary pairing would be Sigenthaler and Severson unless Smith is in the lineup. Up front, Nico Hischier is the lone Devils forward to average two minutes per game on the PK. Yegor Sharangovich ended up being his main partner. Erik Haula, Dawson Mercer, Nathan Bastian, and Michael McLeod have split duties as secondary and teritary forward pairings. As a group, they have done quite well.

For the Rangers, it is a similar picture with only a handful of players averaging over two shorthanded minutes per game and plenty above an average of 90 seconds per game on it. The leading defensemen are Fox and Lindgren, although there have been some recent signs of a Fox-Mikkola pairing at times. I would expect it to be Fox-Lindgren followed by Miller and Trouba. Up front, Zibanejad, Goodrow, Kreider, and Vesey will be the main forwards in shorthanded situations. Zibanejad’s on-ice rates are considerably higher than the rest of the OHR penalty killers. That suggests he could be picked on a bit. I would be more fearful of ex-Devil Vesey, who has been very, very good in shorthanded situations - even if it is in a secondary role. Again, the group is not bad - but not quite as good as the Devils.

Who’s Better: The Devils.

The Coaches

The Devils: Lindy Ruff, assisted by Andrew Brunette, Ryan McGill, Chris Taylor, Sergei Brylin, Dave Rogalski

A not-so-direct cause for the Devils massive upgrade this season were changes to the coaching staff. Alain Nasreddine and Mark Recchi were replaced with McGill and Brunette and Brylin was promoted from Utica. Lindy Ruff’s aggressive ways to allow defensemen to activate and join offensive rushes, seek out quick breakouts and zone exits for transitional offensive opportunties, and overloading on defense were present. But they were nuanced enough at times to cut back on the Devils getting torched. Especially with the overloading, which needed some walking back under McGill. The power play improved under Brunette if only for the skaters being allowed to, you know, skate on it. The offense still leans a lot on a strong-side breakout and trying to catch the opposition in odd-man situations. Of course, it worked very well and very few teams have fully stopped it - usually it is stopped by the Devils themselves to a point - in this past season. So it continued.

Did they work well in 2022-23 after an incredibly dubious showing in 2021 and 2021-22? Absolutely. The stats showed that Ruff’s systems could really lock teams down in 5-on-5. The eye test showed a team that would absolutely punish any team loose with the puck, especially in the neutral zone. The many, many comeback wins showed a team with a far stronger mentality than what it was a season ago. The record showed that the tactics were effective. The improvements in team quality and Ruff & Co’s strategies have blossomed together. There is much chatter as to whether it can work in the postseason. I know the playoff atmosphere and pressure is different, but the rink, the game, and the objectives remain the same.

The Rangers: Gerard Gallant, assisted by Gord Murphy, Mike Kelly, Jim Midgley, and Benoit Allaire

Gallant has a pedigree that has garnered him respect. While his first three seasons as the head coach of Columbus did not go well, he led Florida from a bad 2014-15 season to a very good 2015-16 season before being dumped in 2016-17. He was named Las Vegas’ first ever head coach and bossed them to 109 points in their debut season and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. This was followed up a respectable 93 point finish in 2018-19 and a spicy but disappointing 7-game loss to San Jose in the first round. He was fired 49 games into 2019-20. He was not a free agent for long as New York hired him to replace Dan Quinn in 2021-22, coached the team to a 110-point season and trip to the ECFs. This season finished three points fewer than that and has a chance to keep leading teams into potential playoff runs. This is all quite good despite the fact his strategies seem lackluster.

Some of it is pretty standard. A 1-2-2 in the neutral zone, a forecheck with a guy in the middle to deny easy exits up the middle, a slot-based positioning system on defense, and having options rush up on breakouts. But the 5-on-5 stats indicate that while they are not so bad at allowing the opposition to attack in some respect, they do not do such a good job creating offense. Which hinders a team that can boast having Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Trocheck, and Fox to attack. The Rangers struggled mightily when the Devils were able to get rush plays going against them and especially if they were pressured in the neutral zone. This happened quite a bit in the March 30 game and Gallant’s adjustment must have been to tell the guys to better manage the puck. Which worked for a period before fouling it up for most of the third again. Gallant and his staff have the results to justify that they know a thing or two about what they need to do. The question is: Can they adjust how they play instead of hoping the shooter’s sticks remain relatively hot (9.15% shooting at 5-on-5) and Shesterkin is going to be consistently great? Four games against the Devils suggest that may be an issue.

Who’s Better: Push. Ruff’s rush-rush-and-rush-some-more strategies could become a hindrance if they do not hit enough times to give Our Hated Rivals potentially back-breaking counter-attacks. Gallant, again, has the results but the 5-on-5 stats suggest that his tactics are not exactly why New York finished with 107 points this season. In a series that could end up being close, whoever manages the game best could have a real advantage.

Some Narratives Addressed

The Playoff Experience: Our Hated Rivals clearly have this. The team has made the playoffs in 2021-22 after all. Team veterans like Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Jacob Trouba, Igor Shesterkin, and Mika Zibanejad have plenty of it. The recent-ish additions of Barclay Goodrow (San Jose, Tampa Bay), Vincent Trocheck (Carolina), Jaroslav Halak (Montreal, Islanders, Boston), Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis), and Patrick Kane (Chicago) all have had multiple playoff runs. Goodrow, Kane, and Tarasenko even have rings. This is not an issue for the blue-clad squad.

The Devils do not have as much playoff experience. Ondrej Palat, Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, Ryan Graves, Erik Haula, Brendan Smith, Curtis Lazar, and John Marino have been there before and for at least a couple of times. But not with much ultimate success outside of Palat. This series could be a real eye-opener for those who have not been in the playoffs before (e.g. Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer) or those with only a handful of games (e.g. Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Vitek Vanecek). Or maybe not depending on how Lindy Ruff has prepared and coached his players for all kinds of games, game situations, and moments in this past season. The game is still the game, but if playoff experience has any value - even a little - then OHR has the edge here.

The Overtime Advantage: The Devils have been wonderful in overtime this season. Except the 3-on-3 overtime period is not happening in the postseason. It will be a far more stressful and far less spacious 5-on-5 overtime period. Regular 20-minute periods until there is a winner, even if the clock goes well past midnight. So I do would not be totally concerned about how great the Devils were in 3-on-3 compared with Our Hated Rivals as it does not apply. That said, the Devils have been a superior 5-on-5 team compared with Our Hated Rivals this season, so that could be an advantage should overtime be necessary in this series.

The Average Size: Per Elite Prospects, the Devils have an average height of 186.93 cm, or a low 6’2” (9th in the NHL) and Our Hated Rivals have an average height of 186.56 cm, or a high 6’1” (11th in the NHL). Average weight is heavier for Our Hated Rivals at 90.88 kg or 200 pounds (15th in the NHL) compared to the Devils’ average weight of 88.81 kg and 196 pounds (23rd in the NHL). Official weights and heights are questionable in terms of accuracy. I bring this up to show that the Devils are not, in fact, smaller than Our Hated Rivals on average or all that much lighter since the difference is a whopping four pounds. The playoff experience difference is real, although one questions how much it matters. The size difference is not really much of one. I suggest not paying too much mind to it or anyone worried about heavy one team may be. It is going to be a nasty rivalry series either way.

The “Fans in the Arena” Factor: Steve Valiquette, he of “Royal Road” fame and 46 career games in the NHL, recently claimed that the Prudential Center was basically home ice for Our Hated Rivals. In a sense, he is right in that games against OHR have a lot of people making the bad life choice to wear blue in the seats. In a sense, he is a fool as the Devils won both games in Newark this season with loads of People Who Matter celebrating. Not to mention the last playoff series these two teams had featured three games at each arena and the Devils won two of three. Including the clinching Game 6. Some “home ice” factor. What was not a factor in any of those games was the makeup of the crowd or which fanbase shouted the loudest. If fans truly factored into hockey success, then Montreal and Toronto would have a massive advantage on their own. Which they do not. Do not misunderstand me, it is fun (and, for this series, remarkably expensive) to be a passionate fan and all. But it is not real that it actually matters in the actual game. A game that has been played in front of empty arenas during the CoVID-19 Pandemic, mind you. Having the final line change for match-up purposes can matter.

By the way, here are highlights of Valiquette’s only game against the Devils wherein he was cooked by a middle-aged Igor Larionov and a brace from the Erik Rasmussen in 2004. The video quality is very much like a potato - which matches how Valiquette played in the game.

Some Potential X-Factors

For The Devils: Ondrej Palat. Palat has been icy in recent months. Specifically, two goals and seven assists in his last 24 games. I understand he missed most of the first half of the season with groin surgery. I understand he has recovered and a player coming back from injury may not be fully 100% effective even if they are medically 100%. I understand he is not a focal point of the team’s offense. That all said, the Devils paid Palat a lot of money for his playoff prowess. Now is the time to see if Palat can bring it to Newark as he used to in Tampa Bay. If he can, he will not only justify more of that deal but really help put the Devils over the top.

Luke Hughes. He is a total wildcard. On the one hand, I would not want to throw a 19-year old defenseman right out of college and into hyper-important playoff games just after two NHL regular season games. L. Hughes experiencing a rough learning process in playoff games would be a massive hindrance, especially with a veteran depth defenseman available to play. On the other hand, it worked out well for Boston and Charlie McAvoy, whose first NHL games were six playoff games in 2017 for the B’s. The lesson there is that if a player can contribute to the team, then that is all that matters. Luke Hughes in the Washington game showed flashes of how seriously good he can be on the ice - even as a difference maker. If it were me, I would not play him unless absolutely necessary. Certainly not on Tuesday in Game 1. But Lindy Ruff is not me and he has not ruled out scratching Luke Hughes. If he and Ryan McGill are confident in his skills, then it is a risk but one I could see paying off big time if Luke flashes his skills as he did in DC in the season ender. At the end of the day, is that not what we all want?

For the Rangers: Filip Chytil. Chytil received a $17.75 million contract extension the day before the Devils beat the Rangers for the third time this season. It was a reward for being the leader of a youthful line with Kakko and Lafreniere. Chytil played a real role as a depth scorer in New York’s run in 2022 with seven goals in 20 games. It was a sign of growth, something Chytil further proved with 22 goals and 45 points in this season. With Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano not on the team and Chytil just getting paid, he could be someone expected to step up to supplement the scoring from New York’s top players. If he does, then the Rangers become that much of a tougher opponent.

Patrick Kane. The thing about Kane is that he is very much a one-way player. If he can get hot on his stick and bury pucks, then all of those issues become less of an issue as he can force the Devils to catch up. Those issues being that when he does not have the puck, he is just kind of there and when he is on defense, he is not even just kind of there. Think Petr Sykora in 2012 and you have my thoughts on Kane. If he gets going, then the Rangers are more than just the Panarin, Zibanejad, and Kreider show up front. Just as it would be if Chytil produces among others. I think the expectation is there given that Kane demanded to be traded to Manhattan. Now is the time to show whether it was worth it. Because if he does not get going, the Devils can absolutely take care of business when he is on the ice and remind Kane of how it was in Chicago this season.

The Prediction that May Age Badly in its Boldness

This will be an agonizingly close series. Both teams can score, defend, and prevent goals. One team has an edge in the run of play in 5-on-5, but the other has enough edge in finishing and goaltending to keep it close on the scoreboard. One team has an edge in power plays, the other in penalty kills. Both teams have talent in depth albeit not in equal levels. Each game will be up for grabs and both fanbases will both love and hate it. The pressure will be felt all the way up in the stands and through the broadcast.

That said, the most common situation in hockey is 5-on-5 and the Devils are the superior team there. Playoff hockey is notorious for its inconsistent calling of penalties and that may hinder the Rangers’ superior power play from even getting onto the ice as much as they would want. If the Devils can stay disciplined, win the battles in the neutral zone, and basically play like they did on March 30 against Our Hated Rivals, then I think they can take this series should it remain at 5-on-5 for the majority of it.

And I will boldly predict that they will. And in five games. Five stressful, anxiety-inducing games. But five games.

Your Take

The Devils are playing Our Hated Rivals in the playoffs. This post covered pretty much all of the relevant and some of the irrelevant angles for this series. I am sure there is something I missed or something you disagree with or question. That is fine! I know full well that we all want the same thing - the Devils eliminating Our Hated Rivals. To that end, I want to know what you think. What do you think will be the critical matchups in this series? Who has the better groups of forwards, defensemen, special teams, and even strength play? Which coach is better? What other X-Factors are there? Most of all: Who do you think will win this series and in how many games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.

Thanks to everyone at AAtJ for their support as well as Natural Stat Trick and for housing the majority of stats used in this post. Any salary information came from CapFriendly.