Carter & Clarkson Combine to Carry Devils Past Rangers

DEVILS 4                    NY RANGERS 1

The New Jersey Devils beat the New York Rangers for the third time this season on Tuesday night at Prudential Center 4-1, and it was the first time in four games that they scored more than one goal against Henrik Lundqvist. David Clarkson and Ryan Carter scored goals 1:54 apart early in the third period, breaking the 1-1 tie and giving Martin Brodeur enough offense to pick up his first win in his last six starts.

Ilya Kovalchuk opened the scoring with a breakaway goal 49 seconds after the opening face-off, capitalizing on multiple blunders by the Rangers in the neutral zone. First they turned the puck over while they were changing personnel sloppily, and then defenseman Ryan McDonagh slipped trying to defend against the speedy Kovalchuk, giving the sniper a clear path to the net. “They turned the puck over and Zach (Parise) made a great play,” said Kovalchuk in describing the goal. “They were in the middle of a change and I got a breakaway; this was a big goal for us.” His 26th goal of the season came on a snap shot, giving the Devils a 1-0 lead that they would hold onto until the second period.

Derek Stepan (4 pts. in 5 games) and Carl Hagelin (6 pts. in 5 games) continued to rack up points against New Jersey this season as they were the key components in the lone Rangers tally of the night. Hagelin’s pass from behind the net was tipped by Brodeur’s goal stick and the puck went right to Stepan who then fired a knuckling shot for his 16th goal of the season at 6:56.

Entering the third period 1-1, Clarkson netted the eventual game-winning goal 2:27 in, and he had no idea that he was the one that scored the goal initially. After another turnover by New York Clarkson carried the puck over the blue line and dropped it to Petr Sykora, who was playing in his 1,001st NHL game. Sykora let loose a slap shot that changed direction after nicking Clarkson’s leg and sailed past Lundqvist. “I had no idea (it was my goal) until I got off the ice and onto the bench,” said Clarkson after the game. “It was just one of those plays where I was going to the net, it bounces off of me and goes in. It’s one that I’ll take, but I had no idea it hit me until I got off the ice.”

Carter scored his first goal since November (37 games) 1:54 later when he converted a two-on-one with Jacob Josefson and fired a one-timer past the Blueshirts’ netminder.

The Rangers best chance to get back in the game came with just over eleven minutes left on a power play scramble in front of the net that was defused by the combination of Brodeur and defenseman Bryce Salvador. “I was part lucky on that play, and it hit the post,” Salvador told reporters after the game. “You have to give credit to Marty too, he made some big saves for us in the second period and gave us a chance to win.”

Patrik Elias finished the scoring when he potted his 22nd goal into an empty Rangers net with 1:53 left on the game clock, ensuring that New Jersey would take a 3-2 lead in the season series with their rivals (the final match-up of the regular season will be March 19 at MSG).

Game Notes: The NHL and New Jersey Devils each presented Sykora with gifts prior to the game in honor of his 1,000th game in Long Island on Sunday. Salvador assisted on Elias’ goal for his 100th career point (23g-77a); Stepan now has points in four consecutive games. Brandon Dubinsky only played 42 seconds and did not return to the ice after his first period fight with Carter. Kovalchuk led all skaters in ice-time with 23:38 and all players in shots on goal with 8; Dan Girardi led New York in ice-time with 23:09, while Stepan and McDonagh led their team with four shots on goal each. New Jersey (79 points, 6th in East) is off until Thursday when the host the New York Islanders (65 points, 13th in East) and the New York Rangers (91 points, 1st in East) will be in action that same night in Ottawa (76 points, 7th in East).

Dan’s 3 Stars of the Game:
#1 — Ilya Kovalchuk (NJ): goal (26), assist (38)
#2 — Martin Brodeur (NJ): 25 saves, win (23-17-3)
#3 — David Clarkson (NJ): gw goal (26)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Clarkson’s Flukey Goal Helps Devils Rally Past Rangers

Devils 4                        Rangers 3            shootout

Playing against the best team in the Eastern Conference and trailing by a goal with under a minute to go in the game Tuesday night, the New Jersey Devils needed some puck-luck and found it when Andy Greene’s dump-in hit a partition in the Prudential Center glass and kicked out to a wide-open David Clarkson in the slot. He quickly snapped a shot past Martin Biron and tied the game against the New York Rangers 3-3 with 47.6 seconds left in the third period.”As a team we kept battling back, we were down and we battled back,” said Clarkson, “it’s good to see at this time of the season. For our first game back after the All-Star break, this was a good win.”

After a scoreless overtime, the Devils prevailed in the shootout as Ilya Kovalchuk scored the lone goal and Martin Brodeur stopped all three of New York’s shooters to even up the season series between the Hudson River Rivals (1-1).

The Rangers opened the scoring with less than a minute to play in the opening period when defenseman Anton Stralman collected a loose rebound and had an easy tap-in goal at the side of Brodeur’s net. Marian Gaborik (the All-Star Game MVP) fired the original shot that hit Devils’ blueliner Anton Volchenkov and then caromed off of Brodeur’s pad to a wide-open Stralman.

The Devils captain, Zach Parise, finally got his team on the board after his hard work and perseverance led to his 16th goal of the season 8:20 into the second period. On the scoring play Parise’s original shot was rebuffed by Biron but he slapped at the rebound — propelling the puck over Biron’s shoulder and under the crossbar. “I was trying to get the shot through and the rebound came right back to me,” he explained. “I didn’t know that it went in right away, it went in and came out pretty quickly. I wasn’t sure and then I heard the whistle and the crowd roared, so (laughs) I was pretty happy to get one.”

With the score still 1-1, Brian Boyle gave the Rangers a one-goal lead again when he cut across the slot with the puck on his stick and fired a high shot into the net past a Brodeur who had spun on his back with his legs up in the air. New York was able to maintain the 2-1 lead until Kovalchuk scored a power play goal at 15:25, but before the arena’s PA announcer could announce the goal the Rangers netted their third lead of the night 26 seconds later when Michael Del Zotto beat Brodeur with a shot that went right-to-left as the goalie slid left-to-right; Gaborik made a brilliant cross-ice backhand pass through three defenders on the scoring play.

That set up Clarkson to be the late-game hero, finding himself in the right place at the right time and hoping that he wouldn’t mess up the golden opportunity. “It was just one of those lucky bounces,” said a smiling Clarkson to reporters in the locker room after the game. “It kind of just landed right on my stick; I got a little nervous because I was like ‘How did this just happen?’ We played hard tonight, and Marty was unbelievable for us.”

Greene was happy to explain his part in the scoring play, returning to action after missing 22 games with a non-displaced toe fracture. “I was just trying to put it up and around the glass, but it’s not that easy to hit the right partition and pop out,” he said. When I asked if that’s what the coaching staff diagrammed he laughed and said, “Yeah, it’s like that Buffalo Wild Wings commercial with the field goal at the end of a game and the guy hits the sprinkler button.”

Parise was pleased with the team’s effort after a three game win-less skid and six days off, “We played hard, we played well; that’s a hard-working team and we matched them for the whole game and that’s how you have to beat them.”

In the shootout for New Jersey Kovalchuk went first and scored on a twisted wrist shot before Biron turned aside Parise and Patrik Elias’ attempts. Brodeur forced Derek Stepan’s shot wide of the goal and made a nice glove save on Brad Richards, setting up a showdown with Gaborik to determine if the game would continue or end. “He started so slow, I just kind of waited for him to do anything,” said Brodeur. “He started to go fast, I kind of went fast also (laughs); I tried to mimic him a little bit and it worked out — I was able to make a save on him.”

After dropping their three previous home games, this was a much-needed win for a team that will be battling for a playoff spot during the season’s final 33 games.

Game Notes: Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi led all skaters in ice-time with 33:46 and co-led his team in shots on goal with four (Boyle). Kovalchuk led the Devils in ice-time, 27:05, and led all players with five shots on goal. New Jersey defenseman Adam Larsson led all players with four blocked shots and Volchenkov led all players with five hits. New Jersey (27-19-3) is off until Thursday when they host Montreal (19-22-9) and New York (31-12-5) is back on the ice Wednesday night when they play in Buffalo (21-24-5).

Dan’s 3 Stars of the Game:
#1 — David Clarkson (NJ) —
goal (17), assist (7)
#2 — Marian Gaborik (NYR) — 2 assists (16)
#3 — Carl Hagelin (NYR) –– 2 assists (10)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com

Gaborik Scores Twice as Rangers Roll Past Devils

NY Rangers 4                Devils 1

       

Lately, when the New Jersey Devils play the New York Rangers it seems like groundhog’s day — what I mean by that is the script/recipe is always the same when the Rangers win, just like in their 4-1 victory over their Hudson Riverrivals at Prudential Center on Tuesday night. The Devils scored early, but only once — allowing the Rangers to hang around until they tied the game with a late second period goal. New Jersey then became less aggressive and it was exploited for two goals and an empty netter in the final twenty minutes to put the finishing touches on their first loss since December 10.

With Patrik Elias (flu) out of the Devils lineup Travis Zajac moved up to Elias’ second line center position between Dainius Zubrus and Petr Sykora and the move paid off early for coach Pete DeBoer. Zajac, who missed the first 30 games after achilles surgery scored his first goal of the season at 15:51, pouncing on a loose rebound that Sykora fanned atop the crease of Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist. “They really came out strong and put us back on our heels,” said New York’s Mike Rupp. “Hank was big for us tonight; you kind of take it for granted sometimes. You always ask your goalie to keep you in the game, give you a chance to win. That’s what he did tonight.”

The game stayed 1-0 until 17:28 into the second period when with the Rangers being out-shot 20-9 Artem Anisimov buried a pass from Derek Stepan past Martin Brodeur. On the play Anisimov scored his seventh of the season when he slipped between the Devils duo of Zach Parise and Kurtis Foster to collect the perfect pass.

The tie didn’t last long as Marian Gaborik collected a rebound alone at the side of the net and netted his 18th goal of the season 4:45 into the final period. Gaborik’s goal was the eventual game-winner, but the back-breaker was rookie Carl Hagelin’s shorthanded goal with 5:18 left in the period. Hagelin controlled a loose puck that got past Ilya Kovalchuk and fired a twisted wrist shot over Brodeur’s glove hand. Gaborik finished the scoring on an empty net goal with four seconds left, giving him 19 on the season — one away from the NHL leader Steven Stamkos.

“We were never able to get that second goal,” said a frustrated Parise afterwards. “I thought Lundqvist played really well tonight, he was definitely the difference.” Despite the loss the Devils captain like his team’s effort in the rivalry game, “No matter the outcome, I thought we played a good game; our effort was good, we played hard, had a great start. We were mentally ready and into it, we did a lot of things we wanted to do, we just weren’t able to get that second goal.”

Game Notes: Stepan had three assists, giving him five points/assists in seven career games against the Devils; Gaborik’s first goal was the 600th point of his career (302g-299a) and he has 18 points in 19 career games against the Devils. Zajac’s goal was the 250th point of his career (90g-160a). Rangers’ defenseman Dan Girardi led all skaters in ice-time with 29:09, while Kovalchuk led New Jersey with 27:04. Gaborik was +3, while Kovalchuk and Foster were each -3; New York captain Ryan Callahan led all players with four hits, while his teammate Ryan McDonagh led all players with five blocked shots. New Jersey (18-14-1) is off until Friday night when they host Washington (17-14-1) and New York (19-8-4) travels to play the NY Islanders on Thursday night.

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Marian Gaborik (NYR) – 2 goals, gw (19), assist (11)

#2 – Henrik Lundqvist (NYR) – 30 saves, win (13-7-4)

#3 – Derek Stepan (NYR) – 3 assists (17)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Three More Weeks Until Hockey is Back…

A lot has happened since the last time I wrote, so I will try to cover a variety of topics here:

Congrats to the Boston Bruins who won the Stanley Cup in a Game 7 @ Vancouver. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron were off the charts in that series, and Tim Thomas’ performance was legendary. That Claude Julien guy that coaches the B’s is pretty good, it’d be nice if the Devils had a coach like that…

The Atlanta Thrashers (and their fugly uniforms) are gone and the Winnipeg Jets are back! It’s a shame they won’t be wearing the old uniforms, but a new beginning does deserve a new look and I think I like what I saw from the logo and the uniform scheme.

My sincere and deepest condolences to the families of all of the hockey players that passed away this summer. I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in Russia with the plane crash and I still cannot erase the images of Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek and Alexander Vasyunov’s faces from my mind; hopefully they didn’t suffer. They will all be missed and never, ever forgotten.

So the Philadelphia Flyers brought in Ilya Bryzgalov to play goal this season, making him the 500th goalie they have employed since Martin Brodeur became a New Jersey Devil and the 1,000th netminder since they last won the Cup in 1975. They also traded their two best players — Jeff Carter and Mike Richards — in separate deals that did not bring back equal value and signed 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr. Good luck with that.

It seems certain that Sidney Crosby won’t be ready for the start of the season, but could suit up at some point in 2011-12. Concussions are a delicate issue and Crosby’s career could be derailed like Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya before him. Intentional head shots must be eliminated from the game, but certain players (ahem Criesby…) are also responsible for protecting themselves and need to stop admiring their passes.

Don’t be surprised if the New York Islanders (that’s right, I said it) make the playoffs this season. IF they can stay healthy! John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson seem primed to have big seasons and hopefully Evgeni Nabokov can add some stability to what has been a blue cross and blue shield crease the last few seasons.

The Rangers added the biggest fish in the free-agent pool in Brad Richards, but have we not learned anything over the past six seasons — the team that signs the top free agent never wins the Cup. They did make one right move this summer — naming Ryan Callahan their new captain.

The Devils had a semi-quiet offseason after selecting Adam Larsson with the 4th pick in the NHL Entry Draft. They were able to rid themselves of Colin White and Brian Rolston’s ridiculous contracts, and they were able to re-sign Andy Greene and Johan ‘Moose’ Hedberg. Both Bryce Salvador and Zach Parise have been cleared to start the season, but Travis Zajac may not be back until December after tearing his achilles tendon during an off-ice workout; Zajac’s team record consecutive games streak will end at 401. Cam Janssen is back with NJ and Petr Sykora could be too — he will be in training camp on a tryout basis. The new coach is Peter DeBoer who was fired from the Florida Panthers, the same DeBoer who helped the Cats reach 94 points a few years back — a remarkable feat in itself with the roster he was given. I predict Mattias Tedenby will net at least 20 goals this season and Jacob Josefson will have 30 assists as they help lead the Devs back to the playoffs after last season’s hiccup.

Boston begins defense of it’s Championship on opening night (October 6); the Rangers open in Sweden against the LA Kings the following day (October 7); the Islanders (vs. Florida) and Devils (vs. Philly) both begin their seasons on Saturday October 8; and the new Winnipeg/old Atlanta team makes it’s debut on Sunday October 9 vs. Montreal.

Rafalski and Weight Call it a Career

The NHL lost two veterans to retirement this week, Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski (11 seasons) and New York Islanders center Doug Weight (19 seasons). Both American players had stellar careers, highlighted by winning every hockey player’s dream — the Stanley Cup.

Rafalski joined the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000 as an undrafted free agent from the University of Wisconsin, whom the team’s scouts found playing over in Europe (for four years!). Perhaps his size (5’10”, 195 lbs.) was the reason he was overlooked by the other 29 NHL clubs, but he seamlessly fit in on the Devils’ blue line and partnered with legend Scott Stevens immediately and never looked back. As a 25-year-old rookie he helped guide New Jersey to a championship in 2000 and a return to the Finals in 2001. He was a major part of the Devils 2003 Cup win as well and also won silver medals with Team USA at the Olympics in 2002 and 2010. In 2007 he signed with the Red Wings as a free agent to be closer to his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan and the move paid off for both parties — Rafalski and Detroit hoisted the Cup in 2008 and made in back to the Finals in 2009. This past season he spent a lot of time playing hurt and missed a handful of games, which can be eye-opening for some athletes that the time has come to hang up the skates. “There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table,” he said at his retirement press conference, “That gets tiring.” He retired with one year ($6 million) left on his contract, citing that family is most important now, “What I’ll be doing first and foremost is serving my family; I’ll be definitely looking to help others. I don’t know what that’s going to entail yet, but that will be my focus.”

Rafalski’s career totals: (regular season) 79 goals, 438 assists, 515 points, plus-178, 833 games/(playoffs) 29 goals, 71 assists, 100 points, plus-42, 165 games/(olympics) 13 points in 17 games

Weight had a much different path to the NHL, he was drafted 34th overall by the New York Rangers in the 1990 NHL Draft out of Lake Superior State University and made his NHL debut in a 1990 playoff game with the Blueshirts. He played parts of two seasons with the Rangers before being traded to Edmonton in a deal that helped New York secure the 1994 Stanley Cup. A scoring dynamo with the Oilers, he was part of one of the most dynamic lines in hockey with Bill Guerin and Ryan Smyth; Weight never reached the Finals in Edmonton and was sent to St. Louis in another blockbuster deal prior to the 2001-02 season.  After two and a half seasons with the Blues he was traded to Carolina in 2006 and finally lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup after the Hurricanes’ amazing playoff run, topping the Edmonton Oilers in a thrilling seven-game series. The following summer he re-signed with the Blues and played another 111 games before being shipped to Anaheim at the trade deadline. Prior to the 2008-09 season he signed with the Islanders, a place he and his family now call home. He provided leadership and guidance for the young Isles and was almost like a father-figure for their players; he even had John Tavares live with his family during Tavares’ rookie season. A severe back injury limited his time to only 18 games this past season, but at the end of the season he resurfaced  behind the Isles’ bench as an assistant coach, a preview of things to come. In announcing his retirement on May 26, it was also announced that he is now an assistant coach and special assistant ‘to’ GM Garth Snow (sounds very much like Dwight Schrute’s job!).

Weight’s career totals: (regular season) 278 goals, 755 assists, 1,033  points, 80 power play goals, minus-58, 1,238 games/(playoffs) 23 goals, 49 assists, 72 points, minus-13, 97 games/(olympics) 8 points in 16 games

Are they both Hall-of-Famers? Is just one of them destined for the Hall or will neither make it? Hard to say, but I think Weight could make it. They both will surely make the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. I’d just like to add that I had the privilege of interviewing both players during their careers and they were both class acts who made my job fun and a lot easier.

Who Will Be the Beast of the East?

Who Will Be the Beast of the East?

Eastern Conference predictions

Round 1:

(1) Washington over (8) NY Rangers

(7) Buffalo over (2) Philadelphia

(3) Boston over (6) Montreal

(4) Pittsburgh over (5) Tampa Bay

Round 2:

(1) Washington over (7) Buffalo

(3) Boston over (4) Pittsburgh

Round 3:

(3) Boston over (1) Washington

Washington (1)      vs.    NY Rangers (8)

Last Cup Win: Washington (never), NY Rangers (1994)

Why the Capitals will win: They aren’t intimidated by the Rangers or their goaltender whom has been known to get in some of his opponents’ heads (see: New Jersey Devils). Washington is also one of the deepest teams in the league and they will wear their undermanned first round opponent down.

Why the Rangers will win: They spanked Washington twice this season (6-0, 7-0) and when they are on their game, the Blueshirts have all of the necessary components to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league; solid goaltending, timely scoring and team defense will lead New York to the upset win over the Caps.

Washington’s most important player: Tempted to say Alex Ovechkin, but it’s Mike Green; if he is healthy and has fresh legs he could bury the Rangers (a team that has taken a penalty or two) with his power play prowess.

New York’s most important player: The soul of the Rangers is Henrik Lundqvist, if he falters, they are cooked. He’s only won two playoff series in his career, but his league-leading 11 shutouts this season tell you that he is capable of shutting down any team in the NHL.

Washington’s biggest question mark: It has to be the goaltending, despite the fact that they won the East with three goaltenders — two of them rookies. Michal Neuvirth will get the nod to begin the series, and that’s probably the right call. He won back-to-back Calder Cups for the Hershey Bears and was victorious in 27 of his 48 starts with the Caps this season.

New York’s biggest question mark: Which version of Marian Gaborik will show up in this series? Will it be the same Gaborik that had only 48 points (22 goals) in 62 games this season or will he become the two-time 40-goal scorer that the Rangers are paying for?

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Washington (Jason Arnott, Mike Knuble), New York (Chris Drury, Ruslan Fedotenko)

PREDICTION: CAPITALS IN 6 — Gaborik and Lundqvist will show up and the Rangers will put up a fight, but Ovechkin will eliminate them with a hat trick in Game 6.

Philadelphia (2)     vs. Buffalo (7)

Last Cup Win: Philadelphia (1975), Buffalo (never)

Why the Flyers will win: Since the start of last season’s playoffs Philadelphia has probably been the best team in the NHL. With the talent on this roster they should walk all over the Sabres, but only if their power play finds itself. This season they ranked 19th in the NHL out of 30 teams, with a putrid 16.6%. Offensive juggernauts that were ranked ahead of them: Buffalo, Colorado, Atlanta, Minnesota and Ottawa.

Why the Sabres will win: They have Ryan Miller and the Flyers don’t; it’s as simple as that. He has won playoff series as the favorite and the underdog in his career, and Buffalo is the hottest team in the league heading into the playoffs. If Miller is at less than 100%, then the Sabres will be in trouble.

Philadelphia’s most important player: Chris Pronger’s presence alone will make a difference in the series, but only if he’s healthy enough to be there. His absence over the final weeks of the season is the reason the Flyers crashed and stumbled out of the East’s top spot.

Buffalo’s most important player: Aside from Miller, it’s Thomas Vanek who very quietly had a solid season — 73 points (32g-41a) in 80 games. If Drew Stafford can get into one of his hot streaks it will make a big difference in the series.

Philadelphia’s biggest question mark: As always since Ron Hextall left, it’s goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky will start Game 1, but lurking behind him are somewhat proven veterans in Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher.

Buffalo’s biggest question mark: Can Tyler Myers and the Sabres’ defensive corps stop the flock of talented Flyers forwards is a good place to start; also how will smallish rookie Tyler Ennis (who had a real nice season) hold up in a seven-game series against the rugged Philadelphians?

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Philadelphia (Nick Boynton, Sean O’Donnell, Pronger, Kris Versteeg), Buffalo (Rob Niedermayer)

PREDICTION: SABRES IN 7 — Miller shines as Buffalo wins a l-e-n-g-t-h-y Game 7 in Philadelphia.

Boston (3)       vs. Montreal (6)

Last Cup Win: Boston (1972), Montreal (1993)

Why the Bruins will win: Boston’s depth is only matched by Washington in the East as far as I’m concerned, especially when your top three centers are Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Rich Peverley. The addition of Tomas Kaberle really balanced out the defense in Beantown too.

Why the Canadiens will win: If I had to pick one team in the East that would give Boston the biggest challenge, I’d say Montreal. These two teams know each other inside and out with all of their legendary battles throughout time. Also how will Boston react after blowing a three games-to-none lead in last year’s East semi-finals.

Boston’s most important player: Tim Thomas is the easy choice here, if he continues playing the way he did during the season (35-11-9, 2.00 GAA, .938 save %, 9 shutouts), the Bruins should be able to choke-out the sometimes offensively challenged Habs.

Montreal’s most important player: Where were you this season Scott Gomez? Horrible season (7g-31a, minus-15 in 80 games) from one of the veterans on the Canadiens, but during last spring’s run to the East Finals he put up 14 points in 19 games. If he can get on that type of run it would be much appreciated in Montreal.

Boston’s biggest question mark: The Bruins had a great year, but after choking away last season’s opportunity to beat the Flyers in the semis, anything less than a trip to the East Finals would be a failure. It will be interesting to see how they react if they get Montreal into an elimination game.

Montreal’s biggest question mark: Last season’s dramatic run was led by goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is now with the St. Louis Blues. Now it’s Carey Price’s turn and judging from the season he just had (38-28-6, 8 shutouts) he could be a difference maker, not only this season but for many, many more to come.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Boston (Mark Recchi (2), Shawn Thornton), Montreal (Gomez (2), Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Hal Gill, Brent Sopel)

PREDICTION: BRUINS IN 7 – Boston will bend, but won’t break as they hold off the Habs; Nathan Horton, playing in his first playoffs, will have a monster series.

Pittsburgh (4)                vs. Tampa Bay (5)

Last Cup Win: Pittsburgh (2009), Tampa Bay (2004)

Why the Penguins will win: They have an elite goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal will not only shut down Steven Stamkos, but he’ll also chip in a few big goals.

Why the Lightning will win: Without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, the Lightning can focus their attention on solid team defense and timely goals. Whether or not Stamkos and Simon Gagne can score multiple times will be determining factors in the series.

Pittsburgh’s most important player: It will be all of their penalty killers; they led the league killing off penalties at an 86.2% clip and if they can shut down Tampa’s powerful power play the series could be a quick one.

Tampa Bay’s most important player: If he becomes a playoff-beast once again, it will be the league’s second leading point getter Martin St. Louis (99 points). He’s a proven playoff performer (48 pts in 45 games) and if he gets hot the Pens will become postseason spectators.

Pittsburgh’s biggest question mark: If there is a small chance he can play, does Pittsburgh risk everything and put Crosby out there? If Crosby doesn’t play, who else besides Staal is going to contribute offensively?

Tampa Bay’s biggest question mark: In the 2006 playoffs, Dwayne Roloson led the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and then blew out his knee in Game 1. That was the last time he played in a playoff game, so five years later it’s hard to tell what you are going to get from the veteran netminder.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Pittsburgh (Chris Kunitz (2), Craig Adams (2), Fleury, Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Alex Kovalev, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Tyler Kennedy, Michael Rupp, Max Talbot, Eric Godard), Tampa Bay (Vincent Lecavalier, St. Louis, Pavel Kubina)

PREDICTION: PENGUINS IN 7 — The Lightning prove to be a valiant opponent but Fleury will top Roloson in a wild Game 7

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Moose Trumps King as Devils Blank Rangers

In nine games since returning from the All-Star break, the New Jersey Devils are now 8-0-1 after Friday night’s 1-0 win over the New York Rangers at Prudential Center. They continue to gain ground on the teams ahead of them in the standings, and if they are in contention come April with six games remaining they may get some help from their recovering star Zach Parise; a player better than any player a team ahead of them (Rangers, Sabres, Thrashers, Hurricanes) will acquire at the trade deadline.

Ilya Kovalchuk netted the game’s only goal in the second period on a clean breakaway, snapping the puck past Henrik Lundqvist for his 21st goal of the season; he now has goals in four consecutive games and points in nine games in a row (7g, 4a). He also has four game-winning goals in New Jersey’s last six games.

That would be all the offense that Johan Hedberg needed, as he turned aside all 16 Rangers’ shots; he even admitted on TV to MSG’s Stan Fischler that it was a pretty easy game in net. The shutout was Hedberg’s second of the season and the win was the second for his team against the Blueshirts after dropping the first three match-ups. The sixth and final meeting between the Hudson River Rivals will take place on April 9 at MSG; the second-to-last game of the year for the Devils and the last game of the season for New York.