Devils expose a Rangers defense that’s showing signs of exhaustion

Late in Game 2. ()
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Mike Gibb

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David Clarkson's game-winning goal for the Devils last night was a nifty piece of stickwork, taking a point shot from Adam Henrique and deflecting it past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The goal put New Jersey ahead for good, and now the Eastern Conference final heads to Newark tied at one game apiece.

What made Clarkson's deflection easier was that he was undefended standing in front of Lundqvist. Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel had chased Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky around the net and to the boards, leaving the front of the goal unguarded.

Bickel is the Rangers' sixth defensemen, and sees less ice time than anyone. He played just four minutes and 13 seconds last night, and has averaged less than four minutes of playing time per game over the last eight games. By contrast, all six Devils' defensemen have played at least 14 minutes in each of the first two games of the series.

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Back in in the previous round, when the Rangers won a triple-overtime thriller against the Washington Capitals, Ryan McDonagh was lauded for playing 53 minutes, more than any other player and the equivalent of nearly a full three periods of hockey. McDonagh, and four other Rangers defensemen, have been required to log more icetime because Bickel plays so sparingly.

The Rangers' inability to dress an adequate sixth defenseman is likely to be a significant problem going forward. Last night was playoff game number 16 for the Rangers. If you count all the overtime games, it's more than 17. And they will need to play at least seven more if they are going to win the Stanley Cup, In the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Kings have a 2-0 lead over the Phoenix Coyotes and appear poised to advance to the next round. Los Angeles has played 11 games thus far.

Players start training camp each season preparing themselves for an 82-game season. Adding on another 20 to 25 games takes a significant toll.

Last year's Stanley Cup finalists, the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins, are a cautionary tale of cup hangover. The Canucks and Bruins were each expected to make significant runs in this year's playoffs and both were knocked out in the first round. The added intensity of playoff hockey only exacerbates the toll on players. The Rangers are a young team and are making their first significant Stanley Cup run in a generation.

But winning it all is a marathon, and trying to accomplish it shorthanded could be too much to ask.