Playoff Preview: Devils v. Rangers
It’s the most exciting time of the year for hockey fans because the NHL playoffs are finally here! There are a lot of good first-round matchups this year, but one that sticks out to me is the New Jersey Devils versus the New York Rangers. The Devils ended the season in second place with 112 points in the Metropolitan Division and the Rangers finished third in the Metro with 107 points. In their season series this year, the Devils won three of four games, but they were all close games. In November, the Devils won 5-3. In December and January, their contests both ended in overtime (4-3 both times, one for the Rangers and one for the Devils). Then, in their final meeting, the Devils won 2-1. In all meetings this year, the teams played their starting goaltenders.
Vitek Vanecek, the 27-year-old Czech starting goalie for the Devils is currently listed as out but all signs point to him starting game 1 at the Prudential Center in New Jersey. He has a GAA of 2.45 on the season, which is eighth best in the league. The opposing goalie, Igor Shesterkin, the 27-year-old from Russia that made a name for himself in last year’s playoffs, is biting at Vanecek’s heels. Shesterkin has a GAA of 2.48, which is ninth best in the league. Vanecek played 52 games while Shesterkin played 58. Shesterkin has a save percentage of .916, which is better than Vanecek’s save percentage of .911. The Devils’ backups are Mackenzie Blackwood (3.2 GAA in 22 games) and Akira Schmid (2.13 GAA in 18 games). The Rangers backup is Jaroslav Halak (2.72 GAA in 25 games).
In front of these star goalies are some standout snipers. On the Devils, it was the career-best year for the 21-year-old Jack Hughes that led the team to a playoff spot. Hughes finished 12th in the league in scoring, putting up 99 points, with 43 goals and 56 assists. He scored four times and had six points in the four meetings these two teams had this season. Other players that have lit up the scoreboard for the Devils include 24-year-old Nico Hischier, who had a career-high 80-point season, and Dougie Hamilton. At 29 years young, Hamilton put up 74 points (career high) this year, including seven game-winning goals, and had a +/- of +23.
On the other side of the puck, the Rangers are just as skilled at putting the puck in the back of the net. Artemi Panarin led the Rangers with 92 points this year. This is the third time in Panarin’s career that he’s past 90 points in a season. Mika Zibanejad had 91 points this year, a career high, including 39 goals. Meanwhile, on defense, Adam Fox, 25 years old from New York, leads the team with 72 points and a +/- of +28. The Devils will also have to be wary of the Rangers’ enforcer, Jacob Trouba. He notched 218 hits this season, the most of anyone playing in this series.
There is an inconsistency in playoff experience between these teams and it may be important in this series. The Devils are making the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and it is only the second time in franchise history that the team has recorded more than 50 wins in a season. The Rangers, on the other hand, finished last season in the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Zibanejad was a beast last year, putting up 24 points in the postseason. Adam Fox had 23 points and averaged 26 minutes on ice per postseason game last year. Meanwhile, this is Hughes’ first time in the playoffs and Hischier’s second (he played five games when the Devils made the playoffs in 2018 and recorded one goal). Vanecek played in the playoffs for the Washington Capitals last year and, in two games, let in seven goals for a GAA of 4.21. Shesterkin, meanwhile, played 20 playoffs games last year, had a GAA of 2.59 and a save percentage of .929.
No matter which way you slice it, I see this series going deep. I would be surprised to see anything short of six or seven games. Although the Devils have home-ice advantage, I have to go with the experienced team over the young guns. Give me the Rangers in 7.