Rangers-Devils: The Other Rivalry

Goalies Henrik Lundqvist (NYR) and Martin Brodeur (NJD) meet in the handshake line following the 2012 ECF (NYPost)

Given the age and history of the universe, 32 years may seem like only a sliver in time, but for the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, it’s been enough time to develop a fierce and heated rivalry.

The Move-In/Early Years

In 1974, the doors opened for the Kansas City Scouts, but after only 2 seasons in Missouri, the Scouts relocated to Colorado. There, the Colorado Rockies played 6 seasons, and after 8 full seasons in 2 different locations, going 0 for 8 in attempting to clinch a playoff berth, the move was finally made to East Rutherford, New Jersey where the Devils were established and, with the exception of an in-state arena move from East Rutherford to Newark, have been ever since.

Despite the move, the struggles for the franchise carried over from Colorado to Jersey. In their first 5 seasons in New Jersey, between 1982 and 1987, the Devils missed the playoffs every time. Things were so bad, that hockey legend Wayne Gretzky even went as far as to call the Devils a “Mickey Mouse organization” after a 13-4 loss for the Devils at the hands of Gretzky’s Oilers in 1983. That was until Lou Lamoriello was hired in 1987.

Then the build up to success began.

The Rivalry Takes Flight

In Lamoriello’s first season as the President/General Manager of the Devils, New Jersey clinched a playoff spot for the first time in their short history. Not only that, but after all games were set and done on the season’s final day, they were tied with the Rangers for the final playoff spot. Thanks to the tie-breaker, the Devils went to the playoffs, while the Rangers hit the links for the summer. The once “Mickey Mouse organization” had now outdone the behemoth across the river in dramatic fashion. As if there wasn’t already bad blood, there most certainly was now. A true rivalry was born.

And while the Devils worked to take the leap to the next level towards consistent success, across the Hudson, the Rangers were trying to snap an ever increasing championship drought that was dating back to 1940.

Then in the Patrick Division Semifinals, the first round of the 1991-1992 playoffs, the Rangers and the Devils finally met for the first time during postseason play, and it didn’t disappoint. The series itself went the distance, with the Rangers defeating the Devils in 7 games, but perhaps the most notable moment of the series was the bench clearing brawl during game 6 at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

The Devils went on the defeat the Rangers that night in game 6 to force a game 7, but the Rangers were the eventual victors in an 8-4 game 7 win 2 days later at Madison Square Garden.

For a while it seemed that the 1991-1992 season might be “the year” for the Rangers, when New York captured the President’s Trophy after compiling the most points during the regular season, and when they took a 2-1 playoff series lead against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2nd round, it seemed all the more likely; that was until Ron Francis came along and threw a little wrench in those plans.

The Rangers went on to drop 3 straight games, and in the blink of an eye, they were eliminated from the playoffs in 6 games to Pittsburgh.

Unable to rebound the following season, New York finished the 1992-1993 season in a tailspin, going 1-11 in their last 12 games, and finishing in last place in the Patrick Division.

Then came the famed ’93-’94 campaign.

Playoff Hatred is Born

According the every Rangers fan in existence, they will tell you that the spring of ’94 was perhaps the greatest few weeks of their lives. If you ask a Devils fan however, they’ll pretend that the correct succession of years was in fact 1992, 1993, 1995, and so on and so forth.

At the end of the 1993-1994 regular season, the Rangers and Devils finished 1 and 2 respectively as the league’s leading point getters, the Rangers tallying 112, and the Devils 106. So it was only fitting when the 2 teams were matched up for a showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals.

For the Rangers, this was a tremendous opportunity to not only assert their superiority in the New York-metro area hockey scene, but also prove to the hockey world that they could indeed overcome the curse of 1940. For the Devils, it was a chance to take the next step. A chance to, in one decade, go from being called a “Mickey Mouse organization,” to becoming Eastern Conference Champions. It would’ve also been quite the icing on the cake of the rookie season for New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur.

The Guarantee (Bleacherreport.com)

Right from the get-go, the series was filled with intensity. Two of the first three games were decided in double overtime, with both the Rangers and the Devils getting a win. In game 1, it was New Jersey’s Stephane Richer who netted the game winner in the second overtime, while it was New York’s Stephane Matteau who got it in the second overtime in game 3.

Heading into game 4, the Rangers held a 2-1 series lead, but after games’ 4 & 5, the Rangers suddenly found themselves facing elimination, down 3-2 in the series heading back to New Jersey. That was when the New York Captain himself, Mark Messier, openly guaranteed that his Rangers would win at the Meadowlands to force a game 7. Not only was he correct in predicting the Rangers win, he also scored a hat-trick which included the game-tying and game-winning goals.

Larger than life.

The series then headed across the Hudson one last time for the decisive game 7. As time winded down in the 3rd period with New York clinging to a 1-0 lead, Devils forward Valeri Zelepukin tied the game at 1 with just 7.7 second remaining. At that moment, it seemed like the curse may never be broken.

But history was not cruel to the Rangers this time around, as the hero from game 3 came through once again. At 4:24 of the second overtime period, Stephane Matteau beat Martin Brodeur on a wraparound to win the series for the Rangers, which sent them to the Stanley Cup Final.

“Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!”

The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup against the Vancouver Canucks, while the Devils were sent packing. It was a crushing defeat for the rookie Brodeur, but just one year later in 1995, the Devils would finish what they started in ’94, by winning the Stanley Cup in a 4-game sweep of the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings.

As long time Devils fan Jim Kobak so aptly put it: “1994 sucked. 1994 was a terrible year for hockey, the wrong team won the cup and then there was a lockout… luckily things were made right in 1995!!!!”

 A Break in the Rivalry Action (Sort of…)

The next 3 post-season meetings between the 2 teams were a bit less climactic. In the 1997 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, after dropping game 1 to New Jersey, the Rangers responded by winning 4 straight to eliminate the Devils. Following that series however, the Rangers and the Devils didn’t again match up in the playoffs for almost a decade. During that time though, while the rivalry may not have been directly heated, the Devils sealed their spot in history as one of the NHL’s elite franchises.

The Devils went on the win 2 more Stanley Cups in 2000, and 2003, bringing their total to 3 Championships in just 8 years. The days of the Mickey Mouse organization of the early 80s were long gone, and the organization built by Lou Lamoriello was something special, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Martin Brodeur, Ken Daneyko, and Patrik Elias celebrate winning Stanley Cup #3. (Cbssports.com)

And while the Devils rose to glory, the Rangers became rather stagnant. Between the 1997 and 2004 seasons, the Rangers failed to make the playoffs once.

The pendulum had definitely swung towards Jersey.

A Revival!

When the NHL finally returned in 2005 after the season long lockout in ’03-’04, both the Rangers and Devils seemed like true rivals again. As the ’05-’06 season came to a close, both the Rangers and the Devils qualified for the playoffs, and better yet for the rivalry, thanks to a late season comeback by New Jersey and a late season skid by New York, the two teams were slated to meet one another in the Eastern Conference Quarter Finals.

It was the first meeting between them in 9 years, and while the anticipation was high, the final result was rather dull. The Devils took 4 straight from the injury ridden Rangers, eliminating them from the playoffs. Despite such animosity between the fans, the series itself never quite reached the “next” level of intensity. The writing was on the wall from the start. Rangers’ rookie goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was hurt, and the Devils were just better, plain and simple.

The hatred returned in a big way however, in 2008, when the 2 squads were once again matched against one another in the first round.

While on paper the series was virtually dominated by New York, as they defeated the Devils in 5 games, the extra-curricular drama was a story in and of itself.

In addition to long time Devil forward Scott Gomez signing with New York prior to the 2007-2008 season, and playing extremely well through the entirety of the 5 game series, the Sean Avery-Martin Brodeur saga was in full swing.

During game 3, with the Rangers leading the best-of-7 series 2-1, Rangers forward Sean Avery made his mark on the rivalry forever. With the game tied at 1 during the 2nd period and the Rangers with a 5-on-3 man advantage, Avery parked himself in front of Brodeur, back towards the play, facing Brodeur, and began waving his stick in front of the Devils goalie.

It was an antic that few, if any, had seen before, but that didn’t stop Avery. A clearly agitated Brodeur began shoving Avery, but Avery was persistent. Moments later, off of a feed from Scott Gomez, Avery beat Brodeur to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead. And while the Devils went on to win the game in overtime, Avery had forever made the history books, as the NHL went on to issue an official interpretation of the leagues’ unsportsmanlike conduct rule to address such actions as Avery’s. The incident is now known as “The Sean Avery Rule.”

When the horn sounded, thus ending the series after game 5, the two teams went for the traditional handshake line. All went as planned, with the exception of Brodeur and Avery, who did not shake hands following the game. In his post-game interview, Avery had this to say regarding he and Brodeur: “”Well, everyone talks about how classy or un-classy I am, and fatso there just forgot to shake my hand I guess. . . We outplayed him. I outplayed him. We’re going to the second round.”

The rivalry was back, both on and off the ice.

1994 Rematch

Undoubtedly the climax of the rivalry in recent years was during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals when the Rangers and Devils met once again in the post-season. This time though, just as in 1994, the winner earned a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

During the 2011-2012 regular season, fights were commonplace during the Rangers-Devils season series, but none more so than the final regular season meeting between the 2 teams on March 29th 2012. As the puck was dropped to start the game, gloves were dropped immediately, not just by 2 players, but by 6. Before any time ticked off the clock, Stu Bickel, Ryan Carter, Cam Janssen, Brandon Prust, Eric Boulton, and Mike Rupp had all dropped the gloves and were fighting. Then Rangers coach John Tortorella and Devils coach Pete DeBoer were also exchanging “pleasantries.”

Pleasantries (nj.com)

It was setting the stage for a wildly entertaining Eastern Conference Final.

The series kicked off in New York with the Rangers and Devils splitting games 1 & 2. As the series shifted across the river to Newark, the two teams split games 3 & 4, bringing the 2-2 series back to the big apple.

Over the first 4 games, the drama was also plentiful off the ice, as both Tortorella and DeBoer had their striking disagreements which was on display for all to see behind the benches during the series.

Game 5 was perhaps the wildest of them all. In the first 10 minutes of the game, the Devils had struck 3 times and found themselves with a comfortable 3-0 lead. It looked like there was no way the Rangers could possibly recover. But slowly but surely, the Rangers clawed their way back into the game, and after just 17 seconds had ticked away in the 3rd period, the game was tied at 3.

The Rangers though were unable to finish the job, and dropped game 5, 5-3. Just like that, it was looking like 1994 all over again; heading back to Jersey, Devils leading the series 3-2. It was all the same. Rangers’ fans held onto the hope that history would repeat itself on the 18th anniversary of the 1994 series, while Devils fans hoped their team would finish the job before a game 7 would become necessary back in New York.

Game 6 at the Prudential Center was electric. The Devils jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but just like the previous game, the Rangers found a way to muster up the life to climb back into the game. By the end of regulation, the game was tied at 2, and headed to a sudden death overtime. The Rangers score, it was on to game 7, and if it was the Devils, it was series over.

It didn’t take long.

Just over a minute into the overtime period, Adam Henrique finished off the Rangers as he found the puck amid the chaos in front of Henrik Lundqvist, and put in in the net. As famed announcer Doc Emerick famously (or infamously, depending on who’s talking) proclaimed, “Henrique! It’s Over!”

The Devils went on to lose to the Los Angeles Kings in 6 games in the Stanley Cup Final, but even with the loss, the Devils scored a huge victory on the rivalry scoreboard.

 

NEXT LOCKOUT

 

Following the Devils’ loss in the Cup final in 2012, the NHL once again came to a standstill, as the second lockout in less than 10 years took place. Play finally resumed, as the players and owners finally came to an agreement just days after the calendar changed over to 2013. The result though, was an abbreviated 48 game season in which the Rangers and the Devils wound up meeting twice at MSG in the final week of the season. And while the Rangers didn’t end up making it past the 2nd round of the 2013 playoffs, they were the team to officially eliminate the Devils from playoff contention with their 4-1 win over New Jersey on April 21st. It wasn’t total redemption for Henrique’s OT winner, but it was something.

Recent Times

In the NHL’s most recent season, the climax of the Hudson River Rivalry in fact came neither at the Prudential Center nor at the Garden, but at Yankee Stadium. In January of this past season, the teams squared off at Yankee Stadium as part of the NHL’s Stadium series.

The Devils jumped out to an early 3-1 lead in the game, but the Rangers proceeded to storm back with 6 unanswered goals, giving them the 7-3 win. And while the Devils may have won 3 of the 5 meetings between them this past season, it was the Rangers who advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, while the Devils missed the playoffs entirely.

The Next Chapter

What the future of this true and bitter rivalry will look like is yet to be seen, but if the past can tell us anything, it will most likely not disappoint. There is a true disdain between these two organizations that are mere miles from one another, both between the players and the fans. Brodeur even wrote in his recently published autobiography, Beyond the Crease, “I hate the Rangers, and Lou hates them to death.” Rangers’ fans will be quick to tell him that the feeling is mutual, as it is commonplace to hear “Maaarrrrtyyyy” chants ring out at MSG when Brodeur is between the pipes.

As long time Rangers fan Mike Pullano said, “When I think of the New Jersey Devils, I think of Camo-Jorts, mullets, missing teeth, the distinct smell of urine, and infidelity. I’ve realized it’s not the organization I despise, it’s the fan base, and I’m from Jersey…so there’s that.”

Need I say more?

This rivalry is a special one. It’s good for hockey in the tri-state area, and it’s good for the fans. Whatever the next chapter of this rivalry has in store, it’s sure to be good, of that I’m certain.

 

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