When the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers play each other in the regular it’s not just any old hockey game, it’s a heavy weight fight and when they face each other in the playoffs it becomes an all out war.
It was 18 years ago that Stephane Matteau forever scarred Devils fans with a wraparound goal that ignited the fire that is today’s New York Rangers-New Jersey Devils rivalry.
“Matt-eau, Matt-eau, Matt-eau” was the call heard around the tri-state area and it still haunts me to this day.
Matteau ended Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals with a goal in double overtime that beat goalie Martin Brodeur and the Devils. The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years. (Sadly, this also put an end to the classic “1940″ chants.)
Losing that series taught the up and coming Devils the value of humility and the sting of defeat which they used to capture the franchises first Stanley Cup a year later. New Jersey went on to win two more championships en route to becoming one of the most successful NHL teams of the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the Rangers have yet to recapture the magic of 1994.
Well folks, we have come full circle and the Cup is on the line again.
This series will be the the sixth time the Hudson River rivals have met in the playoffs. New York has won four of the previous five with New Jersey’s only series win coming in a 2006 sweep. The Devils are hoping 2012 will be playoff victory number two over their bitter rivals.
New York was the best team in the East during the regular season, but as we all know the Stanley Cup playoffs are a whole different beast. The Rangers have battled and clawed their way through two grueling 7-games series against the two lowest seeds in the conference just to get to this point.
Now they are forced to take on a New Jersey team that seems to be getting faster, stronger and more confident with every game.
The Devils themselves had to fight through a tough 7-game first round series, needing overtime in both games 6 and 7 to overcome the Florida Panthers. The character and resilience New Jersey showed in victory carried over into the next round.
The Devils thumped the heavily favored Philadelphia Flyers in just five games. New Jersey displayed a ferocity and tenacity unlike any Devils teams I have ever seen and quiet frankly I’m not even sure the Rangers have enough left in the tank to win four more games, period.
The key for the Devils is to approach each game with New York like they did against Philly. They have to stay cool, calm and collected. The Devils turned the other cheek time and time again in the second round win. Plus New Jersey is the best 5-on-5 team left with 24 goals scored. Staying out of the box gives them the upper-hand and the best chance to win.
The Rangers appear to have the edge defensively. They’ve played outstanding in front of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. New York has allowed a microscopic 1.86 goals-per game through 14 games. They’ve also blocked a mind-blowing 267 shots to New Jersey’s 131. Trust me, this will be one tough nut for Devils forwards to crack, but it can be cracked.
The Devils do have the edge offensively. They boast a talented group of offensive weapons that include Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, David Clarkson and Adam Henrique. The list goes on and on. New Jersey has averaged three goals per game, while the Rangers are a hair over two at 2.07 goals-per game. The Devils have to keep firing on all cylinders, they can’t let up.
But, maintaining that kind of production against Lundqvist won’t be easy, especially since he owns Brodeur and the Devils in his career. Lundqvist, is 23-6-6 in the regular-season against Brodeur and 4-4 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If there is a clear advantage for the Rangers in the series it’s in goal. Lundqvist is far better in net than a 40-year-old Brodeur. Don’t count Marty out though, he’s 8-3 with a 2.05 GAA and .920 save percentage for New Jersey thus far in the playoffs. He can still steal games and his ability to handle the puck is still the best in the business.
This is going to be a really tough series. The amount of emotion surrounding these two clubs can hopefully manifest itself into another epic series. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have another series like the one in ’94 but these teams will have fun trying.
The Rangers were my pick to win the Cup at the start of the playoffs, but so much has changed since then and I like the Devils to win this series in 6 games.
Follow me on Twitter! @StevePalumboNHL
Email me at StevePalumboNHL@gmail.com