Blood in the Hudson: Rangers vs. Devils

If you grew up in the New York metropolitan area in the 1990s, the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals left a mark on you. It didn’t matter if you liked hockey or if you didn’t, but the Devils were playing the Rangers, 1940 was emblazoned into your psyche and Mark Messier was busy carving out a place there for himself, too. Of course, if you liked hockey, then it was a horse of a different color entirely. The 1994 Eastern Conference Finals in the NHL were a series with drama that was almost unmatched by any other postseason series in the history of sports. Granted, I have a particular soft spot for both hockey and this series in general, but if you look at the facts — and we will do that in a moment — there is no postseason series I have seen in any sport that has proven its equal, though the 2001 World Series comes close.

To wit:

The 1994 season is widely remembered as the campaign in which the Rangers finally broke the curse of 1940, when the team opted to burn its mortgage on Madison Square Garden in the bowl of the Stanley Cup in celebration, thereby desecrating a sacred object and sentencing the team to more than half a century without a championship. Or so the theory goes. While the Rangers’ victory over the Devils in that season’s Eastern Conference Finals is not forgotten, people often forget that while the Rangers had the second-best record in the NHL that season, the Devils had the second-best just six points behind them. Add into the mix the natural geographic rivalry of two teams that played across the river from one another, as well as a bitter dynamic for New Jersey in which the Devils played consistent ugly duckling to the big, bad Blueshirts — something that is still the case despite the Devils being the more successful franchise since 1994 by an extremely wide margin — and what lay ahead was a dream set up to a dream series.
So to recap, this is what we were presented with before that series:

— The two best teams in the NHL’s regular season by the most significant empirical metric
— A natural geographic rivalry between two teams and fan bases that hate each other
— A measure of recent history, as the Devils and Rangers had played a bitter seven-game series two years earlier
— A chance for the Devils to finally crawl out from big brother’s shadow
— A chance to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the most that could possibly be at stake between these two teams given the League’s format

This is what we got:

— A Claude Lemieux goal in the final minute of regulation ties the game before Stephane Richer scores the winner for New Jersey in double overtime in Game 1
— A Rangers blowout in Game 2
— Stephane Matteau scoring in double overtime to give the Rangers a 2-1 series lead in Game 3
— A 3-1 Devils win in Game 4 to even the series
— A surprisingly convincing win by New Jersey at the Garden in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead
— Game 6: Messier guarantees a victory for New York on the road to extend the series, and with the Rangers trailing in the third period Messier himself scores not one, not two, but three goals to rally the Rangers and force a Game 7
— Game 7: New York takes a 1-0 lead into the final moments before New Jersey’s Valeri Zelepukin ties the game with 7.7 seconds left in regulation. At 4:24 of the second overtime, Stephane Matteau beats New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur on a wraparound to end the series and send the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1979 and, eventually, their first championship since 1940.
— 12 of the players on the ice are currently, will eventually be, or arguably could be in the Hall of Fame.

The two best teams in the League, two geographic rivalries, three double-overtime games including Game 7, an epic guarantee by the second-highest scoring player in NHL history. I ask the casual sports observer what could possibly be a more dramatic and complete series that promised so much and delivered on all counts.

The Devils and Rangers have met in the postseason since then, but never again in the Conference Finals and never when both teams were such legitimate Cup threats until this season. It is difficult in many ways to draw comparisons, particularly since of all the players in that series a grand total of one of them, Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who was in his first full season, is still on either roster. But the rivalry and the disdain are still there. Look no further than earlier than the two teams’ final regular season game against one another this year when the two teams dropped the gloves immediately following puck drop.

Strangely, however, the hatred is just about the only thing that’s the same regarding these two teams now as opposed to 18 years ago. In the mid-1990s the Devils were considered by many teams to be the harbingers of the dead puck era, instituting a defensive-minded scheme in which the neutral zone trap reigned supreme and scoring chances came purely off a counterattacking defense that sat back on its blue line and waited for the opposition to make a turnover. That reputation has followed the Devils around for two decades — and through three Stanley Cups — but this time around it is actually the Rangers that base their game on a dedication to defense, shot blocking and leaning on its stellar all world goaltender. The Devils, on the otherhand have built their playoff run on an obscenely aggressive forecheck, constantly pressuring the opposition in hopes of forcing turnovers and striking whenever the opportunity presents itself. It’s a far more exciting brand of hockey than the one New Jersey built its dynasty on and so far it’s working. The Devils have averaged 3.00 goals per game so far this postseason, the fourth most of the 16 teams that entered the playoff field and the second most behind Los Angeles of the four teams remaining. The Rangers on the other hand have averaged just 2.07, nearly a full goal per game less.

There is a flip side to that coin as well, however. The Rangers’ defensive system in which they collapse all five skaters around the puck when it enters their offensive zone, and their all-world goalie/sex symbol/all around great guy Henrik Lundqvist have given up just 1.86 goals per game, second-best of any team in the postseason and half a goal better than New Jersey’s 2.33.

You may notice, however that the disparity between New York’s goals scored and goals against is a pretty slight margin, particularly considering the small sample size of just two postseason series, and while one might say that getting it done at all is more important than how it happens — and they’re mostly right — how that happens can be detrimental if your style of play produces a series of wars of attrition by design. That’s exactly what New York’s system has done. The top seeded Rangers have escaped the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators and the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals by the hair on their chinny chin chin. The Rangers actually trailed the Sens 3 games to 2 in the opening round before rallying to win the series, and were 6.6 seconds away from experiencing the same situation against Washington before Brad Richards tied Game 5 out of a net-mouth scramble and Marc Staal won the game early in overtime.

In short, the Rangers play a grinding style that makes them win, but barely, and not always, and when you don’t always win you play a lot of long playoff series. In this case the Rangers have played back-to-back seven-game series to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a rigorous grind that essentially means playing 14 games in 28-30 days, something that would be physically exhausting without adding in the physical, shot-blocking, body-sacrificing style the Rangers employ. The type of grind takes a toll on the body that presents its own kind of challenges by the third round of the playoffs, so much so that of the 39 teams before the 2012 Rangers to go the distance in each of its first two series, a grand total of zero have won the Stanley Cup.

That isn’t to say the Rangers don’t have offensive weapons with which to strike as well. Richards and Marian Gaborik are both dynamic scorers while the rest of the lineup chips in with a timely goal here or there to keep the team afloat, but it does seem that the Devils will have the offensive edge, particularly with striker Ilya Kovalchuk, who has been superb throughout the playoffs and will be rested after nursing an injury that caused him to miss Game 2 against Philadelphia. Add to that the burgeoning collective firepower of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson, and the Devils look like a team that can score from all angles. If New Jersey can get past New York’s shot blocking Lundqvist will have a full plate, but the Rangers will more than likely have the edge when it comes to goaltending. Brodeur is the greatest netminder of all time, but having recently turned 40 his better days are behind him even if he hopes he still has one more better day left. Lundqvist on the other hand was arguably the best player in the League this season not named Evgeni Malkin, and he was certainly the NHL’s top goalie.

But it’s a team game. And as Marty Brodeur can tell you, the better goalie doesn’t always win. New York’s Mike Richter was at the top of his game 18 years ago, but he was not the best goalie when given the benefit of 20/20 hindsight even if he was at worst Brodeur’s equal during that series. In 1994, the Devils and Rangers were both loaded with a deep roster that enabled them to roll four lines and give men like Richer, Lemieux and Matteau the chance to play hero.

A series with this type of buildup and this type of rivalry with this much at stake has a knack for creating those heroes, even if the ones who played the roll 18 years ago aren’t around to do it this time. Fortunately, for the rest of us, when the puck drops at 8 ET tonight, there will be a new opportunity for the Devils and Rangers with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on the line.

We’ll see who wants to play hero this time.

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