Who wins Round 2 of the Battle of the Hudson? Five keys for Rangers, Devils

    Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

In the Stanley Cup playoffs, it doesn’t take long for narratives to form.

One developed quickly after the New York Rangers defeated the rival New Jersey Devils in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series: That the experienced Rangers were poised and the playoff newbie Devils were panicky.

But Rangers defenseman Adam Fox said those narratives can change quickly.

“We were the team that didn’t have ‘much experience’ last year,” Fox said after the 5-1 win in New Jersey. “It’s a long series. It’s one game.”

Can the Devils rally in the second game of this potentially long series? Here are five keys for New Jersey and the Rangers headed into Thursday night’s Battle of the Hudson:

The ‘jitters’ must end

Devils coach Lindy Ruff said it best after Game 1: The best thing that happened for his team was that they now all had at least one playoff game under their belts.

It was the first postseason action for players such as Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer. As a franchise, it was the Devils’ first playoff game since 2018. The coach and his players openly talked about “jitters” after the Game 1 loss. You didn’t have to check the player biographies to figure out which team made the conference final last year and added former Stanley Cup champions at the trade deadline, and which team was the New Jersey Devils.

“That was the first playoff game for a lot of players. Until you live it, you don’t have that experience,” Ruff said.

Opening night nerves happen. Heck, the Boston Bruins admitted that they played through butterflies during their Game 1 win over Florida, and that was after the most successful regular season in NHL history. The Devils have tasted the playoffs. Now they have to show they have the stomach for them in Game 2.

Whither Meier and Palat?

Two players in the Devils’ top six with playoff experience didn’t have a significant impact in Game 1. Timo Meier, the team’s blockbuster trade deadline acquisition, tried to make something happen with two shots and two shots blocked right around Igor Shesterkin’s crease. Ondrej Palat — signed in the offseason — had one shot from the slot and another two blocked in the zone.

Both of these players like to drive the net and create chances. Meier led the San Jose Sharks in high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes. Palat basically earned his free-agent contract with the Devils by creating those chances in the playoffs: in 71 postseason games during the Lightning’s three trips through to the Stanley Cup Final, he led all players in high-danger shot attempts (min. 25 games).

The Rangers did a good job of limiting second-chance shots from the Devils in Game 1. They didn’t allow much chaos in front of Shesterkin. These players could remedy both problems for the Devils.

Rangers must keep Devils grounded

One of the reasons the Devils didn’t look like that offensively dynamic team that finished fifth in goals per game: The Rangers basically put them in quicksand, taking away time and space from their scorers while pushing skill players like Jack Hughes around all night.

The Rangers’ physicality accomplished two things. It disrupted the Devils’ offensive flow in the attacking zone. Hughes was Exhibit A: He averaged 3.27 giveaways per 60 minutes in the regular season and had only two of them in four games against the Rangers. In Game 1, he had five.

The Rangers also drew the Devils into more physical battles, which is very much not their game … and very much something where the Rangers had the advantage before the series, with players such as Jacob Trouba, K’Andre Miller and Barclay Goodrow. The Devils were 29th in hits per game (16.43) during the regular season; in Game 1, they delivered 30 of them.

The Rangers also saw a statistical change from the regular season to Game 1. They were 18th in blocked shots per 60 minutes heading into the series; they had 22 blocked or adjusted shots against New Jersey in Game 1.

“They forced us to play a game that limited our rush opportunities,” Ruff said. “When you have the lead, it helps with that.”

More from the Zibanejad line

It’s tricky to judge the Rangers too harshly at 5-on-5. They built an early 2-0 lead and then the game was all but over when defenseman Ryan Lindgren scored late in the second period. But the Devils had a plus-17 advantage in shot attempts and a plus-14 in scoring chances for the game at even strength.

The reunited Kid Line — Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko — was the Rangers’ strongest, playing near even in shot attempts and generating Lindgren’s goal. Artemi Panarin’s line was beaten on possession, but generated the game’s first goal. But the Rangers’ other primary scoring line needs to be better at 5-on-5.

Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Patrick Kane were a minus-8 in shot attempts and had the lowest expected goals for any Rangers line in the game. Kane and Kreider had only one shot on goal apiece at 5-on-5, while Zibanejad didn’t have one. Seeing a lot of Mercer and Nico Hischier will do that to a line.

This line has proved it can be better than this offensively and defensively. The real question is whether coach Gerard Gallant will allow it to thrive offensively. The Rangers, by design, played a conservative Game 1. They chipped pucks in rather than carrying them in. Kane had four dump-ins and only carried the puck in three times, for example.

Special teams battles

There was no bigger disparity between the Devils and Rangers in Game 1 than on special teams. The Rangers were 2-for-3 on the power play. The Devils were 0-for-4. But it was when those successes and failures happened that mattered.

The Rangers took a penalty 1:15 into the game, and the Devils failed to get a shot on the ensuing power play. Vladimir Tarasenko scored just under two minutes after it ended for a 1-0 lead. The Rangers took another penalty at 6:09 of the first period. Again, the Devils failed to register a shot on goal during the 5-on-4. They took a penalty 1:05 after it ended, and Kreider scored the first of two Rangers power-play goals on the night to make it 2-0.

Ruff said the inability of the Devils to generate momentum from their power play was a critical factor in their loss; it created momentum for the Rangers instead.

“We were looking for the perfect play,” the coach said. “All year, we’ve been a unit that’s looked for certain plays and been able to capitalize on them. But our puck play wasn’t good enough.”

A lot wasn’t good enough for the Devils in Game 1.

“You’ve got to put the disappointment away, right away,” Ruff concluded. “We talked about it as a team this morning: You got your first taste. You take away what you can from the losses, take away what you can from the wins, and you’ve got to move on.”

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