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New Jersey Devils' David Clarkson (R) celebrates with teammates Adam Henrique (L), Alexei Ponikarovsky (2nd from L) and Bryce Salvador after scoring against the New York Rangers in the third period of Game 2 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden in New York, May 16, 2012. REUTERS/ (Mike Segar/Reuters/Mike Segar/Reuters)
New Jersey Devils' David Clarkson (R) celebrates with teammates Adam Henrique (L), Alexei Ponikarovsky (2nd from L) and Bryce Salvador after scoring against the New York Rangers in the third period of Game 2 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden in New York, May 16, 2012. REUTERS/ (Mike Segar/Reuters/Mike Segar/Reuters)

Eastern Conference Finals

Running with the Devils Add to ...

Over on this side of the Hudson River, the violence issue is off the ice.

In the past week in the area surrounding the Prudential Center, there have been shootings (one fatal, an off-duty detention officer), post-concert assaults, robberies and more than a dozen arrests.

Fortunately, Newark police have guaranteed there will be increased security Saturday, for the afternoon match between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils as they meet in Game 3 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final.

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However, neither the Devils nor Rangers will guarantee anything – unlike Mark Messier’s legendary promise of a Rangers’ victory when these two bitter rivals met in 1994 – but another game in which pucks are dumped in, chipped out, chased down, ground out of corners and, almost without exception, blockaded from reaching their intended destination. The rare ones that do will obviously decide the outcome.

Such curious conference finals: One series, it isn’t necessary to watch; one series, it’s torture to watch.

And such irony that the average Canadian fan – who invented hockey, put together the 2010 Olympic gold-medal team, and can recite from memory chapter and verse from the NHL collective bargaining agreement – finds these current rounds so uninspiring, while audience numbers soar in the United States. Some 44 million watched all or parts of the first two rounds, a remarkable 12-per-cent increase over last year.

It is fair to hope there may indeed be something worth watching Saturday, as the teams are tied 1-1 and Game 2, won by the Devils, finally featured a goal of the sort previously found in the imaginations of young Canadians.

Not only that, but the goal was scored by a Russian star – a much-maligned sub-group in NHL hockey these days – and a Russian described by his head coach as “a good person and a good teammate.”

Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils bench boss Peter DeBoer added: “Could be born in Canada or the United States and you wouldn’t know the difference other than his accent. He’s here to win. He’s a team-first guy. He’s very unselfish. He’s just a great person. I don’t think that’s common knowledge around the league.”

As for the European superstar on the other side, Rangers forward Marian Gaborik, his moment in the Game 2 spotlight came as he sat most of the third period on the bench. Slick, fast and inventive, Gaborik now stands as the antithesis of the playoff hockey demanded by coach John Tortorella.

“That situation is between [Gaborik]and [Tortorella]” Rangers defenceman Marc Staal said Friday, “but everyone knows how they have to play.”

The Rangers style – part bulldozer, part human sacrifice – has had the unexpected result of making the Devils, long despised for their dull, trapping style of play, seem the frisky, fun team by comparison. It doesn’t help the Rangers’ cause that Tortorella comes across as a rude boor with the media and a sneering tyrant on the bench.

This is somewhat unfortunate in that the Rangers have a most-admirable captain in Ryan Callahan, a valiant defence corps which would seemingly stand in front of anti-tank rockets if necessary, and a goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, who is as likeable and capable as Martin Brodeur, the Devils’ 40-year-old future Hall-of-Famer.

But the Devils used speed and skill, and a couple of excellent tips, to win Game 2 and for that reason alone they are changing minds among those who for years have used “the New Jersey Devils” as a euphemism for dreary hockey.

Now, they say the Rangers are boring because of this obsession with dropping in front of every aimed puck. Yet, DeBoer says, “too big a deal” is being made “about the blocked-shot thing.

“They’re a good shot-blocking team. That’s part of their identity. You have to deal with that, just like you do other teams’ strengths, whatever those are,” the coach said. “We’ve got a plan for it. They’re still going to block shots and be in shooting lanes. That’s not going to change. We just have to get more through than we did in Game 1. And we did that in Game 2.”

The Rangers also have a plan, though nothing that would ever be revealed or discussed by their coach. If they cannot counter the Devils’ speed, if they cannot do better along the boards where the Devils won so many pucks, and if they cannot score then all the blocked shots in the world will only mean a summer of Tylenol.

“It’s going to be a big battle,” Lundqvist promised. “A big war out there.”

“I expect it to be the best game of the series,” DeBoer said. “From both ends.”

We can only pray.

 
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