With the New York Rangers currently taking on the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, I figured now would be as good a time as any to delve into the history of the Rangers-Devils rivalry.
The New York Rangers are a team with a deep-rooted history. They were founded in 1926 as a second tenant for “Tex” Rickard, president of Madison Square Garden – the other team playing there being the New York Americans, whose success in the New York market allowed for the Rangers to come into being. The team was known as “Tex’s Rangers,” which is where their rather unusual (considering the locale) nickname comes from. Eventually, the Americans would fold, the Original Six Era would begin, and the Rangers would have New York all to themselves.
In 1972, the New York Islanders were added as an expansion team at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island in order for the NHL to thwart the World Hockey Association from putting a franchise in the building. The Rangers-Isles rivalry would gather steam through playoff matchups and the ups and downs those bring to a team’s fanbase. As the Islanders embarked on their dynasty in the early-1980s (becoming the first US-based NHL team to win four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983 and adding a losing Finals appearance in 1984), the Devils, another product of the Expansion Era of the NHL, and a transient one at that, were putting down stakes in East Rutherford in the New Jersey Meadowlands. In order for the Devils to do this, they had to pay an indemnity fee to the Rangers and the Islanders, as well as the Philadelphia Flyers, for “invading their territorial rights.” Once that was out of the way, the Devils would get to the business of building a hockey team.
The first meeting between the Devils and the Rangers, two teams whose home arenas were separated by only eight miles but who were worlds apart in fans eyes, would come October 8, 1982 before a capacity crowd at the Meadowlands and see the Devils pick up their first ever win in franchise history, 3-2. During the early-80s, very little happened on, or off the ice (the Devils and Rangers have never made a trade with each other – although players have changed sides via free agency) to move the feud forward, although for Devils fans, at least, a game against the Blue Shirts was always a chance to take a shot at the Manhattanites many in New Jersey felt looked down on them.
The closest the Devils and Rangers got to a Playoff matchup in the 1980s came when the Devils clinched their first Playoff berth on the last day of the season in 1988 with a dramatic overtime win in Chicago. With that win, the Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup Playoff tournament to face the top seeded Islanders in the Patrick Division Semifinal and the Rangers (who had beaten the Quebec Nordiques earlier that day) were left out in the cold. Making it to the Playoffs in such a fashion was enough for Devils fans to feel triumphant, but knocking out the Rangers in the process was even sweeter!
The first Playoff meeting between the teams came in 1992 in a series that would have more significance than anyone could have imagined at the time. The Devils entered the 1992 Patrick Division Semifinal as the fourth seed playing the top seeded in the division (the NHL was still had divisional playoffs at that time) Rangers. Game one got under way on April 19, 1992 at MSG. New York would win that game 2-1 with Mike Gardner coming away with the game winner. New Jersey would win game two, in a 7-3 rout, as the Devils took away the Blue Shirts home ice advantage. The Devils would take the lead in the series in game three, winning 3-1, as the series shifted to the Meadowlands. The Rangers switched their goaltender from John Vanbiesbrouck (one of the few players to play for the Rangers, Islanders, Flyers and the Devils throughout his career) to young Mike Richter and Scott Stevens scored the game winner for New Jersey. Game four saw the Rangers even things up with a 3-0 shutout by Richter. Game five, played April 27, 1992, is remembered today not because the New Yorkers took a 3-2 series lead with a 8-5 drubbing of the Devils. It is remembered today as the first playoff appearance of not only the greatest netminder in Devils history, but arguably the greatest to ever play the game: Martin Brodeur. Game six, played at the Meadowlands, would be the Devils last hurrah. With Chris Terreri, their usual starter and Brodeur’s current goaltending coach with the Devils, they emerged victorious 5-3 forcing a game seven. That game would be played in Manhattan and the Rangers would take the series decisively: 8-4. Leading scorers for the series were Peter Stastny for the Devils with 3 goals, 7 assists and 10 points and Mark Messier for the Rangers with 5 goals, 6 assists and 11 points.
In 1994, the NHL switched to a Conference-based playoff format, similar to the NBA (with the first seed in the Conference facing the eighth seed and so forth). The Rangers finished first in the newly-named Eastern Conference and the NHL that year with 112 points, while the Devils, in their best season to date finished second overall in both the Conference and the league standings with 106 points. The Rangers had eliminated eighth seeded Islanders and seventh seeded Washington Capitals to get to the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, while the Devils (who were seeded third after Pittsburgh, who gained the second seed due to winning the Northeast Division, despite only finishing with 101 points) eliminated Buffalo and Boston on their road to the Conference Final. The stage was set for an epic.
The series opened on May 15, 1994 at the Garden with the Devils winning 4-3 in overtime on Stephane Richer’s game winner. Game two would see Mike Richter and the Rangers shutout the Devils in MSG, evening the series at one game apiece. Stephane Matteau scored his first overtime winner of the series as the Rangers won 3-2 to take a 2-1 series lead in game three at the Meadowlands. With game four at Brendan Byrne and the Devils behind the eight-ball early, they pulled out the 3-1 victory to even the series up. Game five, back at Madison Square Garden and Mike Peluso put home the game winner as the Devils won the game, taking a 3-2 series lead putting them one win from their first Stanley Cup Final berth in history. Unfortunately, the Devils would not win another. Game six was the famous “Guarantee Game” in which Mark Messier told the papers the Blue Shirts would not lose the series… then went out and scored a hat trick to back it up. The Rangers had won 4-2 and had now tied the series up. Game seven, in New York, was set up to be a thriller and it would not disappoint. With New York ahead 1-0, Valeri Zelepukin tied the game with 7.7 seconds left in regulation to send shockwaves through the Garden crowd. It would take two OTs to settle this one, as Stephane Matteau (whose son would be drafted by the Devils 18 years later) put the puck in the net and made Rangers radio play-by-play man Howie Rose’s call of “Matteau! Matteau!” immortal (to Rangers fans) and irritating (to Devils fans).
Leading scorers for this series was the Devils Bernie Nicholls (a former Ranger) and Claude Lemieux with 2 goals, 3 assists for 5 points and the Rangers Mark Messier with 4 goals, 7 assists and 11 points.
How do you follow that one? You don’t, at least not for a few more years. The teams next met in the 1997 Conference Semifinals. Game one got underway on May 2, 1997 at the now-named Continental Airlines Arena with Marty Brodeur and the Devils coming out on top with a 2-0 shutout victory. It was downhill from there for New Jersey. Game two saw an identical score to game one, only with Mike Richter and the Blue Shirts gaining the shutout this time. The Rangers took a tight-checking game three, 3-2. Mike Richter gained his second shutout of the series in game four, 3-0. The Rangers then wrapped things up and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in overtime of game five 2-1. Adam Graves had the game winners for the final two Ranger wins. Leading scorers for this series were: Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rolston for the Devils with 1 goal and 1 assist for 2 points and the Rangers’ Wayne Gretzky with 2 goals, 3 assists for 5 points.
The tables were turned in 2006, the next meeting for the two rivals as the Devils pulled off the sweep on the Blue Shirts to rest in four straight in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Game one was a 6-1 Devils rout, game two saw New Jersey win 4-1, game three saw a 3-0 Brodeur shutout and game four, the most competitive of the series saw the Devils wrap it up 4-2. The Devils had come into the series winning 11-straight games to end the regular season. Patrik Elias led the Devils in scoring with 11 points off of 5 goals and 6 assists. Blair Betts led the Rangers way with 1 goal and 1 assist for 2 points.
The teams met again in 2008, and as much as 2006 was a disaster for the team in blue, this was for the team dressed in red. The Rangers would win the series four games to one, dumping the Devils in the Quarterfinals. The Devils only win came in game three, 4-3 in OT on John Madden’s winner. Elias again led the Devils in scoring with 4 goals, 2 assists and 6 points while future Devil and Patrik’s countryman, Jaromir Jagr led the Rangers with 2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points.
Like 1994, 2012 was billed as a classic matchup. And from a Devils perspective anyway, it did not disappoint The Devils arrived in the Eastern Conference Finals by eliminating the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia. The Rangers path led them through the Ottawa Senators and Washington. Game one at MSG saw Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist shutout the Devils en route to a 3-0 win and a 1-0 lead in the series. Game two and the Devils evened things up by squeaking out a 3-2 win. Lundqvist picked up another 3-0 shutout in game three giving the New Yorkers a 2-1 series lead. From there, the Devils did not let up. Game four: Brodeur and the Devils win 4-1. Game five: it’s a 5-3 win for Jersey’s Team as fourth liner Ryan Carter scores the game winner. Game six: rookie Adam Henrique etches his name in Devils history and sends the Prudential Center crowd into a frenzy by scoring his second series clinching OT goal of the playoff year (he had previously scored the series winner against Florida) to clinch the Devils fifth Prince of Wales Trophy as Eastern Conference champions and fifth trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Devils fans watching at home on NBC rejoiced as Mike “Doc” Emrick called out “Henrique! It’s over!” Leading scorers were: New Jersey’s captain Zach Parise (3 goals, 3 assists and 6 points) and New York’s Ruslan Fedotenko (2 goals, 3 assists and 5 points).
No sports rivalry would be great without playoff lore and heroism woven throughout its history and Devils-Rangers is no different. Ask any fan and they will tell you: nothing beats playoff hockey for its intensity and excitement. Meeting your rivals only ups that ante and New York Metropolitan hockey fans would have it no other way!