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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

TURF WAR

Rangers vs. Devils could make The Godfather look like Mary Poppins

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It was way back in March -- back when there was still snow on the ground and the NHL regular season was headed toward its conclusion -- when fans and media alike were witness to the bubbling and tasty little feud between New York Rangers' boss John Tortorella and his counterpart with the New Jersey Devils, Peter DeBoer.

Before the puck had even dropped in a game at Madison Square Garden on March 19 the two men sniped at each other like schoolyard bullies after Tortorella took exception to DeBoer icing a starting lineup that featured a fourth line of tough guys -- a retaliatory shot to a meeting in Jersey back in December in which the Rangers head coach did the same.

After the contest -- which featured a line brawl three seconds after the opening faceoff -- DeBoer said: "I guess in John's world you can come into our building and start your tough guys, but we can't do the same in here. He's either got short-term memory loss or he's a hypocrite. It's one or the other."

And, after initially steering clear of the war of words, Tortorella chimed in a day later with: "I think Peter needs to jog his memory as far as the starting lineups that I've put in over in their building and really, basically, just shut up. And I need to also. I think the situation last night is disrespectful to players and I think we took a backwards step."

All of this had the hockey world wondering aloud about the juicy possibilities should these two hated rivals meet again in the playoffs when the stakes are a spot in the Stanley Cup Final and the intensity level is cranked up a gazzillion notches.

Well, here we are hockey fans.

"You guys can make your stories about the Devils-Rangers, and I know you're gonna do it in the next couple weeks -- don't include me in it," Tortorella told reporters Saturday night after his troops dispatched Washington in Game 7. "We are going to worry about the New York Rangers."

Nice try, Torts.

"There's no need for buildup. It's already there," Devils winger Dainius Zubrus told The New York Post. It's good for hockey, good for the fans, and good for everyone else. A lot of people around here wanted this.

"Since the day I arrived in New Jersey, I sensed that this is The Rivalry. And I like that stuff."

Buckle up, folks, because this vicious, nasty turf war -- the 'Battle of the Hudson' as some media in New York/New Jersey are referring to it -- could make Gladiator look like Lady and the Tramp.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

NY Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils

Game 1: Tonight in New York, 7 p.m.

TV: CBC, RDS, NBC Sports Network.

Head to head: New Jersey was 3-3 in the regular-season series; the Rangers were 3-2-1.

The Rangers: 51-24-7 in regular season; 1st seed in the East. Eliminated Ottawa 4-3 in Round 1 and Washington 4-3 in Round 2.

The Devils: 48-28-6 in regular season; 6th seed in the West. Knocked off Florida 4-3 in Round 1 and Philadelphia 4-1 in Round 2.

Why the Rangers will win

New York is selling its "battle-tested" theory after being pushed to the limit in both their series and having less than 48 hours between their dispatching the Caps and Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. We'll see because, really, how else can they spin this? The Devils, meanwhile, have had close to a week off after dumping the Flyers in five. We will say this: the Rangers were dynamite in Game 7 and continue to follow their defensive blueprint to success. They rely enormously on their top four defencemen -- Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh along with Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto -- and often collapse around goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to take away shooting lanes and frustrate snipers. King Henrik, a Hart and Vezina candidate, is also a front-runner for the Conn Smythe, having yet to allow more than three goals in a game during the playoffs.

Brad Richards has been outstanding and leads the club in scoring, but Marian Gaborik and Carl Hagelin -- who join him on the Rangers' No. 1 line -- have been spotty in the playoffs. Gaborik, in particular, is going to have to help this unit get going and, indirectly, take some of the pressure off a defensive corps that has been left with little room for error with the Rangers averaging just two goals a game.

Why the Devils will win

These aren't those dullsville trapping Devils of old. DeBoer's troops play a relentless forechecking game that can pin opponents in their own end and force turnovers. This is a deep roster that rolls four lines and has been getting production from its stars -- Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac especially -- and a swack of different role players. Case in point: game-winning goals in the playoffs have come from seven different players, including two from David Clarkson.

The defensive corps, which includes Manitoba product Bryce Salvador, has been dominant as we see the continued growth of rookie Adam Larsson and Mark Fayne working alongside vets like Anton Volchenkov, trade-deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky and Andy Greene. And then there is veteran netminder Martin Brodeur, who has made 182 straight playoff starts and is a solid 8-3 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 12 starts this spring.

In what is expected to be a tight series, the Devils do seem to have the special-teams advantage: Their penalty kill was absolutely awful in the first round against Florida, but did set a percentage record (89.6) during the regular season while potting a league-leading 15 short-handed goals. Meanwhile, of the four remaining teams, the Devils have posted the best power-play numbers (20.9 per cent).

Tim Campbell picks: Devils in five.

Gary Lawless picks: Devils in six.

Ed Tait picks: Devils in seven.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2012 C1

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