For those who don’t know me, I grew up on Long Island, a fan of the lowly New York Islanders. The Islanders, altogether, may be the worst run franchise of the past decade: minimal spending, consistent losing seasons, prospects refusing to play or moving to Russia, and now comes the latest blow: the other two teams within hitchhiking distance, the Rangers and Devils, have made the conference finals and one of them will represent the East for the Stanley Cup. However, the last time these two met was in the 1994 Conference Finals, one of the great playoff series of the ‘90s, when the Rangers needed 2 overtime periods in game 7 to get by some 21-year-old goalie named Martin Brodeur. Now the two teams meet again 18 years later, and wouldn’t you know, that Brodeur guy is still starting for the Devils. Crazy.
Rangers: Well, if you spend enough money on free agents, year after year, something finally clicks. Didn’t click with Wade Redden, Chris Drury, or Scott Gomez, but it finally looks like Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik can be the heroes Gotham so desperately paid for. The truth is, the Rangers are here because of their defense. Besides Michael Del Zotto, not a single Ranger is considered an “offensive defenseman”, instead relying on top-notch defensive play and a pretty good goalie also. Truly, the Rangers are doing everything that makes the other New York sports teams successful. Expensive free agents Richards & Gaborik. leading the team in points, parallel the big money offense of the Yankees. The dynamic shut-down defense of Jets cornerback Darrell Revis is matched by the defensive work of Marc Staal, Dan Giradi, and Ryan McDonagh – who successfully neutralized Alexander Ovechkin last series, and now look to do the same to another dynamic Russia – Ilya Kovalchuk. Finally, like the Knicks this season with Linsanity, a ton of no-name prospects like Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, and Carl Hagelin, are cementing their legacies as Rangers. Big money free agents, shut-down defense, and young players contributing: that’s a dangerous combination.
Potential Conn Smythe Winner: There are too many talented defenseman on this team to give this award to only one of them – the Conn Smythe has to go to Henrik Lundqvist. Besides an Olympic gold medal in 2006, Lundqvist has yet to win any sort of individual award. His first year in the NHL, he had the rare distinction of being nominated for the Vezina trophy (best goalie), but not the Calder (best rookie), because of being overshadowed by named like Crosby and Ovechkin. Say what you will about the lockout, but that first post-lockout year was a fun one. Now, years later, Lundqvist is generally regarded as a top goaltender in the league, if not the top goaltender, but he always had a history of not doing anything in the playoffs. He’s finally got a team in front of him that’s good enough to win the Cup, and if Lundqvist is able to be lights-out against the Devils and in the finals, he’ll get the only trophy in hockey that really matters – the Stanley Cup lifted over his head.
Devils: This time last season, the New Jersey Devils were excited because they won the lottery. The draft lottery. Yes, after finishing with their worst record in years, the hockey gods rewarded the Devils by moving their draft slot up 5 slots, giving them the chance to take the most highly-touted defenseman. A year later, same aging goalie in net, same basic team, the Devils are in the conference finals. The question these past couple years has been what are you guys going to do once Brodeur leaves, and now it seems the answer is “who cares, let’s win another Cup before he goes”. They’re icing a defense full of guys nobody’s heard of – Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, Pete Harrold, and Mark Fayne are hardly household names, and you’ve gotta give the edge to the Rangers, who have much better defensemen. However, this Devils team absolutely shocked the Flyers while the Rangers needed 7 games to put away the Capitals, so I wouldn’t count out New Jersey anytime soon. One of the biggest problems for Jersey is honestly going to be keeping the wealthier Ranger fans out of their arena – if Rangers fans buy mass tickets and take the short drive across the Hudson to Jersey, the Rangers could wind up with 7 home games. Without home field advantage, the Devils will have an even tougher road to compete for the Cup.
Potential Conn Smythe Winner: Ilya Kovalchuk. This is Kovalchuk’s 11th season in the NHL, a three-time all-star with a Rocket Richard trophy (most goals) in his trophy case. Despite that, he’s only made the playoffs twice in that time frame, both times being bounced in the first round. Now, with a Devils team that many thought would be destroyed by the Flyers, Kovalchuk has lead this team to the conference finals with his scoring. He’s stuck with these Devils – as an unrestricted free agent, he signed a controversial 15-year, $100 million deal that caused the NHL to accuse the Devils of circumventing the cap, and they must surrender a 1st round draft pick within the next 3 years as punishment. They put all their eggs into his basket – after a career of not making the postseason – and their trust in him is finally paying off. At the ripe old age of 29, Kovalchuk can get overshadowed by all the young talent that’s found its way into the league these past couple years, but he’s still a dynamic player and he’s still fighting to hold that Cup over his head.
Prediction: This series will be a battle. Expect angry fistfights between drunken New Yorkers wearing blue and druken Jersey boys wearing red in the crowd. For this lowly Islanders fan, I think the series will come down to fatigue. The Rangers needed 7 games to knock off both the Senators and Captials, while the Devils are far more rested. I think the Devils win it in 6 to advance to the finals.