And so it begins. The New York Rangers hosted the New Jersey Devils in Madison Square Garden on Monday night with four victories separating either side from a chance to win the Stanley Cup. The Rangers, the number one ranked team in the East, drew first blood, weathering an early storm of Devils pressure before exploding on their cross-river rivals in the third period to win the game 3-0. It’s a scoreline that flatters the Manhattan team, which—were it not for the fearlessness of an excellent crop of young defensemen and the heroics of superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist—could have just as easily lost.
Such finely balanced encounters are to be expected when the Rangers and Devils play each other. Separated just by avenue blocks, the Hudson River and a few miles of turnpike and Jersey marsh, the two teams are fierce rivals. In 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, the Devils have perhaps the greatest goalie in the history of the game — but, as happened last night, he has been consistently outplayed on the other end by the elegant Swede Lundqvist. That match-up between the pipes is overshadowed by years of feuding and mutual dislike between the teams: in a regular season game in March, an ugly six-man brawl broke out moments after the puck dropped. Not two seconds had elapsed on the clock and the linesmen were already scraping blood off the ice.
The current clash has yielded predictable comparisons to the showdown in 1994. Then, also in the conference finals, the Rangers and Devils met in what became an epic seven-game series embedded deep in city sporting lore. The Rangers won Game Six at the Meadowlands on the back of a hat-trick by New York’s captain Mark Messier—before the game, Messier, a man with the angular head of an Easter Island statue, had boldly predicted victory on the backpages of city tabloids—to take the series to a decisive Game Seven in Madison Square Garden. There, the Rangers won in double-overtime on a goal by checking winger Stephane Matteau, whose name, shouted breathlessly by New York radio commentator Howie Rose, will never be forgotten by Tri-State area hockey fans. The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup against Vancouver, breaking a 44-year-old year curse that haunted this proud but woefully unaccomplished franchise.
WATCH: Devils vs. Rangers, Game 7, 1994
The echoes of that long, grueling series—some say the Rangers really won the Stanley Cup in that round—ring loud to this day. Here’s Larry Brooks, longtime hockey writer for the New York Post:
Get this: If the Rangers-Devils series goes the distance, Game 6 would be played in New Jersey on May 25, the 18-year anniversary of Mark Messier’s “We’ll Win Tonight” Game 6, while Game 7 would be played on Broadway on May 27, the 18-year anniversary of Stephane Matteau’s double-overtime winner against then 22-year-old rookie Brodeur.
That’s pleasing history for Rangers fans. But, apart from a short-lived appearance in the conference finals in 1997, the team has never been that close to glory since. Rather than kick start an era of MSG dominance, the 1994 Rangers triumph was to be followed by over a decade of Devils supremacy. The Rangers’ suburban neighbors have won the Stanley Cup three times since then; a small market team sandwiched by far bigger and better-supported clubs in New York and Philadelphia, the Devils have built astutely and carefully, cycling in homegrown talent and seamlessly threading together a string of capable, committed sides, all buoyed by Brodeur’s rock-solid netminding.
No so the Rangers. Like the Knicks, their fellow Garden tenants, they were for years an object lesson in New York arrogance and delusion — dealing away promising prospects in ill-considered trades and throwing money at pricey free agents. Successive teams of overpaid, disinterested stars and well-intentioned journeymen failed to make the playoffs. A train of hapless coaches struggled to instill any sense of character or identity in the club. Meanwhile, the Devils machine rolled on: playing an asphyxiating brand of defensive hockey that ground down opponents and clogged up the ice. Brodeur and his boys lifted the Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003.
For Rangers fans (including yours truly), the tremendous success of the Devils is the source of some existential disquiet. To this day, we tend to express more visceral hatred for the other suburban upstarts, the New York Islanders: at every Rangers game, no matter their opponent, you will hear chants against Denis Potvin, captain of the Islanders’ cup-winning teams in the early 1980s, for a career-ending hit he put on Rangers defenseman Ulf Nilsson in 1979. That’s over three decades ago. Yet, with the Devils, we try to forget or, at most, churlishly belittle: They, after all, celebrate their cup wins in a parking lot — we, in front of millions, have the Canyon of Heroes. Rangers-Devils games in Jersey’s new arena, Newark’s Prudential Center (a far superior facility, it should be said, to Madison Square Garden) draw nearly as many Rangers fans as Devils. “This is our house!” is a common, brash Ranger refrain at the Rock.
Yet the underlying irony is that the New York Rangers of 2012 look quite a lot like the New Jersey Devils of 1994. With a salary cap now in place, the Rangers had to build a proper team and are now reaping the dividends. With the exception of marquis forwards Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, most of the squad is young and has been reared in the Rangers system — one which preaches defense and hard work over all else. Lundqvist, now 30, is not only in the running for the Vezina trophy (awarded to the league’s best goalie at the end of the year), but the Hart (the prize for league’s overall best, an award usually doled out to a free-scoring forward). Without him, the Rangers would be a shadow of the team they are. The three players who have logged the most ice-time in this year’s playoffs are all Rangers defensemen — the all-star Dan Girardi, future all-star Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal, who, until missing the first-half of the season with a post-concussion symptoms, was considered the pick of the crop. Michael Del Zotto, another young Rangers defenseman, leads the NHL in playoff scoring from his position.
They’ll need to keep up their form if the offensively-challenged Rangers are to overcome the Devils and repeat the triumph of 1994. Ahead of the series, Rangers coach John Tortorella trumpeted: “This is where your legacy is made.” But whatever success awaits Tortorella’s young, overachieving team in the weeks and years ahead, it’ll be a legacy shaped and shared by their rivals across the Hudson.