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2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Devils vs. Rangers

Devils vs. Rangers

Can the Devils have a similar run as last year’s Rangers, or can New York build off of last season’s success? (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Devils vs. Rangers
Can the Devils have a similar run as last year’s Rangers, or can New York build off of last season’s success? (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Devils vs. Rangers

In some ways, this year’s New Jersey Devils feel a bit like the New York Rangers did a season ago. Yes, their roster construction is much different. The Devils are built around their two young studs down the middle, while some of the Rangers’ biggest stars are found on the wing or between the pipes. But much like New York a season ago, the Devils entered this season with faint playoff hopes that became very real very quickly. They’re in the playoffs for the first time in five years, just like New York a season ago. However, this isn’t some young, innocent team just happy to be here. The Devils have been dominant all season long.

Anyone who mistook the 2021-22 Rangers for falling into the former category was proven sorely mistaken last April and May. Despite concerns about their 5-on-5 play and playoff experience, the Rangers took out a couple of recent playoff regulars in Pittsburgh and Carolina, then ran the show against the Lightning for the first two and a half games of the Eastern Conference Final. The Rangers proved they had the horses to go on a deep playoff run. And all they’ve done since is add two of the most lethal scorers of the 2010s.

The Devils had a fairly quiet offseason but have seen their young talent flourish somewhat surprisingly under Lindy Ruff. Yes, the coach that Devils fans wanted fired in the first half of October led them on a franchise-record-tying 13-game win streak that created a wave of momentum and confidence the Devils have been riding ever since. Like the Rangers a season ago, there are some cracks under the 100-plus-point exterior that may have some predict this dream season to end fairly soon. But last year’s playoffs show the danger of counting a team like New Jersey out.

Recent History

Not only this is an intriguing matchup on paper. But the geographic and historical factors could easily make this the most fun first-round series. The Rangers have won four of their six all-time playoff meetings, but New Jersey is 2-1 in the cap era. Both side also has an iconic moment to hang their hats on, with Stéphane Matteau‘s Game 7 overtime winner to send the Rangers to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final going head-to-head with Adam Henrique‘s Game 6 OT heroics that won the 2012 Eastern Conference title for New Jersey. We’ll see if this year swings the iconic moments pendulum in one team’s favor.

The Last Time Here

The Rangers were underdogs in last year’s first-round series against the Penguins, both by odds and the standings. However, there was a clear path to victory, and New York followed it to a tee. Their special teams were strong, Igor Shesterkin was great and the Rangers did just enough to eke out a Game 7 overtime victory.

As for New Jersey, their last playoff trip was all the way back in 2018. The Devils were the lowest seed in the field that year and were clearly outclassed by the Tampa Bay Lightning. New Jersey won Game 3 at home, its first playoff game at the Prudential Center in six years. But the Lightning took the other four in pretty convincing fashion.

Why New Jersey Wins

They’re the better team at 5-on-5, and that’s what matters the most in the playoffs. New Jersey trailed only Carolina with a 56.53% expected goals share. The Devils achieved that in an incredibly balanced fashion, finishing second in expected goals per 60 and fourth in expected goals against per 60. Of course, 5-on-5 play isn’t everything. The two teams right behind New Jersey are the Flames and Penguins, whose seasons are already over. But as the whistles blow less frequently, some teams thrive while others flounder. New Jersey certainly fits in the former category, at least in the regular season.

One of the common traits most recent Cup winners have is a dynamic one-two punch down the middle. And other than Edmonton, the Devils may be better off in that area than any other team. It feels like light years ago that people were wondering about Jack Hughes‘ development after a disappointing rookie season. Now, his eight-year, $8 million extension looks like one of the sport’s biggest bargains. Hughes’ dynamic talent and filling of highlight reels has overshadowed the other former No. 1 pick on the Devils, Nico Hischier. Hischier isn’t as flashy but still scored 80 points this year and seems like a future Selke winner. According to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model, Hischier is in the 91st percentile for play-driving at both the offensive end and defensive end. There aren’t a lot of players that can say that.

Expect New Jersey’s rush-heavy offense to test the Rangers every chance they get. New York doesn’t have a true shutdown center like the Devils do with Hischier, who will likely be tasked with quieting the Rangers’ biggest threats. The Devils are a team built around their speed, which Hughes and his main partner in crime Jesper Bratt possess in spades. Dawson Mercer is another young forward enjoying his coming-out party this year. Tomáš Tatar has been one of the league’s best regular season play drivers the last few years and is looking to overcome his playoff ghosts after being scratched for significant parts of not one but two occasions where his team has gone to the Final. Erik Haula‘s quietly been a nice add at 3C. And Ondřej Palát brings valuable experience and a strong play-driving acumen when healthy.

New Jersey is primarily known for its offense, and for good reason. Only Boston and Buffalo scored more goals than them among teams in the East. But sleep on their backend at your own peril. New Jersey has a whopping four defenders who have provided a market value of eight million dollars or higher, according to Luszczyszyn’s model. While Erik Karlsson deservedly raised the bar for offensive defensemen this year, Dougie Hamilton also exploded, destroying his previous career-highs with 22 goals and 74 points. The Hurricanes may be ok without him. But New Jersey is better with him, especially because he also drives play to an elite degree and is a huge part of the Devils’ good but not elite power play.

The rest of the defense gives him plenty of support. It features a home-grown product in Damon Severson, one of three players left from New Jersey’s last playoff trip, a solid free-agent signing in Brendan Smith and three incredibly shrewd trade acquisitions in Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves and John Marino. Severson was fourth among defensemen (min. 400 minutes played at 5-on-5) in expected goals percentage. Oh, and they just added 2021 No. 4 overall pick Luke Hughes, fresh off of two dominant seasons at Michigan. Don’t expect a Cale Makar-level boost that he provided right out of college to the 2019 Avalanche. But he makes the Devils that much more dangerous. Prospect Kevin Bahl has also been good, providing New Jersey with impressive depth.

Vitek Vaněček already has a brief taste of playoff hockey over the last two years. It hasn’t treated him kindly, though. In three career playoff games, all starts, Vaněček has allowed -3.6 goals above expected. However, he’s entering this year’s tournament not just as a first-time full-time starter, but as a much better goaltender. Over the last two regular seasons, Vaněček surrendered -12.7 goals above expected. This year, he’s in the positive, stopping 5.1 goals above expected. The Devils don’t need their netminding to win this series, but they can’t afford for it to lose it. Vaněček should be able to provide that, if not a little bit more.

Why New York Wins

They’ve got the better goaltender, and that’s what matters the most in the playoffs. The special teams edge the Rangers had last year against Pittsburgh isn’t quite as prevalent here. New Jersey is fourth on the PK and 13th on the power play. New York is fourth on the power play and 13th on the PK. But there are few goaltenders who can match what Igor Shesterkin brings to the table. Shesterkin is both consistent and the rare goaltender who can be considered a game-breaker due to his ability to make impossible saves look easy. He was *only* fifth in the NHL in goals saved above expected, but make no mistake: Shesterkin is as good as better.

The Rangers are a difficult team to evaluate because its hard to separate the narratives from the facts when it comes to Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane. They simply aren’t the two players they were five years ago when each was a top-10 player at their position. Both have struggled massively to drive play since joining New York, each sporting 44 percent expected goals shares. However, they’ve managed to each collect about 57 percent of the actual goals despite not scoring at an elite rate. But counting either out feels foolish given their track records, especially in the playoffs. Remember, there are four combined Cups between the two.

Thankfully, the Rangers have a different duo that does just that in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. They came through big time in last year’s playoffs, including a combined eight points in New York’s two Game 7 victories. The play-driving concerns with Kane and Tarasenko aren’t a worry with them. The same goes for Chris Kreider. Although there’s been predictable regression from last year’s 52-goal season where he shot over 20% (career average: 15%), Kreider’s nose for the net makes him a dangerous threat come playoff time.

Vincent Trocheck rounds out the Rangers’ top six quite nicely, providing a nice offensive balance and strong two-way play as well. And there’s always the possibility of Gerard Gallant breaking out last year’s incredibly successful kid line. All three of Filip Chytil, Kappo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière did take a step forward this year. Maybe more growth is in store this spring.

A season ago, the Rangers were 20th in expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and allowed 30.8 shots per game. This year, the Rangers have been slightly better. They’re 16th in xGA per 60 and allow 29.3 shots per game, which is just outside the top five. New York’s blue-line can certainly move the puck, with Adam Fox obviously leading the way in that regard. Making smart decisions on the breakout and in the neutral zone will be crucial for New York. If they don’t do that, they’ll cough up turnovers that play right into New Jersey’s quickness.

One key boost for New York’s chances is that Ryan Lindgren is back after missing about a month after injuring his left shoulder. Lindgren is quietly one of the league’s best defenders per Luszczyszyn’s model and is someone the Devils will try to keep their star forwards away from.

Players to Watch

NJ: There was a ton of buzz in New Jersey when they acquired Timo Meier in a trade with the Sharks. It was seen as a fantastic move for the Devils, a team already stacked down the middle giving Hughes and Hischier some more support with a physical, talented power forward who’s already appeared in 36 playoff games at just 26 years of age.

Meier was having a great season in San Jose at the time of the trade, and he’s continued to play well since. He drives play on both ends of the ice, but the points haven’t been coming as abundantly since the move. Part of that may be not being as big of a focal point in New Jersey’s offense as he was for the depleted Sharks. But after tallying 76 points last season and scoring at just under a point-per-game pace through 57 games this season, Meier has only scored at a 55-point pace with the Devils.

One thing many people who are bearish on New Jersey will point out is their lack of size. While Hughes and Bratt have both gotten stronger, neither are going to be able to physically overpower most opponents. Hamilton is bigger, but physicality isn’t the name of his game. That amplifies the importance of Meier, a top-five scorer for San Jose during their 2019 Western Conference Final run, to be at his best in this series.

NYR: K’Andre Miller showed some promising signs during his first two NHL seasons. But it was clear during last year’s playoffs that he wasn’t ready for primetime. Out of 100 defensemen to play at least 50 5-on-5 minutes in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Miller was 91st in expected goals percentage. The Rangers were also outscored 17-15 with Miller on the ice at 5-on-5 as well.

His 2022-23 season wasn’t perfect — Miller didn’t drive play to the same degree he did relative to his teammates last year. But the Rangers still performed better and outscored opponents with him on the ice than off. Miller also more than doubled his point total despite receiving minimal power-play time. In fact, he was 12th among all NHL defensemen in 5-on-5 points per 60. When Miller puts it all together, he is a force. Now the 23-year-old gets another chance to do on the biggest stage.

The Pick

Up front and on the backend, these two teams feel very even. They should, given the small five-point difference in the standings. They each have different strengths and weaknesses. There is star power and depth on each side. And regardless of what happens in the next four to seven games, expect both of these sides to be back here next year — and a lot going forward.

But there’s one clear area where the advantage is lopsided, and it’s in the net. The 23 goals saved above expected edge between the two starters is one of the biggest in any Round 1 series. Vaněček has had a nice season and does have some playoff experience. But Shesterkin is one of the league’s very best, something he has shown in both the regular season and playoffs. Like last year’s first round, the Rangers will probably be outplayed. Like last year’s first round, the Rangers will still find a way. Rangers in 6.

We’ll have previews for every 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs series right here on Vendetta Sports Media.

Oddly Specific Prediction

This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is his; the prediction itself is mine.

Rangers-Devils playoff series of years past have featured some of the best defensemen in NHL history. Legendary names such as Brian Leetch and Scott Niedermayer have been a part of this great rivalry. Fox and Hamilton aren’t on their level, but they’re undeniably elite players. One of them is scoring, or at least assisting, on the series winner.

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Stats via, Natural Stat Trick, Dom Luszczyszyn/The Athletic, Corey Sznajder/All Three Zones and Stathletes

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