By TOM CANAVAN
AP Sports Writer
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The New Jersey Devils surprised a lot of hockey experts this past season in going from an NHL also-ran to one of the top teams in the league.
The Devils unleashed another stunner to open the playoffs against their river-rival New York Rangers — 22-year-old Swiss goaltender Akira Schmid.
Schmid rebounded from his only bad game and made 31 saves in Game 7 to lead the Devils to a 4-0 victory over the Rangers on Monday night in an wildly entertaining series.
“We believe in each other,” Devils captain Nico Hischier said. “We knew even last year didn’t go our way, lots of injuries, we have a good group here. We got a lot of good characters here. We’re a team that plays with a lot of speed and it’s hard to handle if you do that.”
Coming off a franchise best 52-win season, the Devils will open the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday against the Metropolitan Division-winning Hurricanes in Raleigh, North Carolina. Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is on Friday night.
The major reason the Devils advanced was Schmid, who had had played in a total of 24 regular season games over the last two seasons.
After New York had a pair of 5-1 wins in the opening two games in New Jersey against starter Vitek Vanecek, Devils coach Lindy Ruff switched to Schmid and the youngster was unbelievable.
Over the next five games, Schmid went 4-1, allowing a total of two goals in his wins. He was driven from the net in Game 6 of a 5-2 loss in Madison Square Garden after giving up all five goals, but the Devils went with him in Game 7 and he delivered his second 4-0 shutout of the series.
“You’ve got to be ready if you get the chance, you know,” Schmid said. “And then you’ve got to take the opportunity and play well. Obviously the team helped me out a lot, making the transition a lot easier for me.”
Schmid admitted he surprised himself a little with how well he played.
Michael McLeod and Tomas Tatar scored second-period goals in the series decider and Erik Haula and Jesper Bratt added insurance goals in the third in the game between the long-time Hudson River rivals.
“Outstanding! Stone cold,” Tatar said of Schmid. “He just seems so patient in his crease, playing so well. He was a big part of this series. Coming in as a young goalie it’s not easy but he stood tall.”
Schmid stopped a pair of Mika Zibanejad power-play blasts in the first period and made a great glove save on Vincent Trocheck with the score still 2-0 in the third period.
Igor Shesterkin was outstanding in defeat, stopping 20 shots, including Jack Hughes’ breakaway late in a scoreless first period.
Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, who led New York to the Eastern Conference finals last year, said the team had a ton of talent and the goaltender played well. However, they generated two goals in the four losses.
“I love to have talent but I love to have a work ethic and more forecheck and stuff like that and we just didn’t get it done,” Gallant said.
New Jersey broke things open midway through the second period on plays set up by playoff veteran Ondrej Palat and defenseman John Marino.
With the Rangers about to go on a power play, Palat, who won two Stanley Cups with Tampa Bay, outworked a slipping Chris Kreider and star defenseman Adam Fox along the boards for a loose puck. He skated toward the net, slid a pass under a sliding Zibanejad and found McLeod, who patiently skated around Shesterkin and deposited a backhander into an empty net at 9:53 for a short-handed goal. It was his first goal since January.
Marino took a cross-ice pass from Hischier at the Rangers’ right point later in the period, swept in on Shesterkin and had the puck slide off his stick to the corner. He retrieved it, and threw a blind pass toward the crease that found Tatar for quick shot into the net at 15:39.
Haula scored his fourth goal of the series with 5:33 left in the third period to send the send the crowd into a frenzy. Bratt added an empty-net goal with 3:19 to go and the series was all but over.
This was the seventh time the two rivals had met in the playoffs and the Devils cut the Rangers’ lead to 4-3. Two other series also went seven games with the Rangers taking both at Madison Square Garden. They posted a 2-1 win in the 1994 Eastern Conference final on Stephane Matteau’s wrap-around goal in double overtime and 8-4 in the 1992 conference semifinal.
NOTES: Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur waved a white towel just before the opening faceoff to rev up Devils fans. … For a home game, there were a lot of Blueshirts in the crowd. … Hughes took a major fall late in the first period when his feet went out from under him with no one near him. … Home teams are 112-81 in 193 Game 7s in the Stanley Cup playoff history, and 1-2 this year. Boston and Colorado lost at home on Sunday night.
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