Devils’ Offseason Moves Will Have Impact

For the New Jersey Devils, the 2014 offseason will be remembered long into the future. Whether it is remembered for helping to build a Stanley Cup contender (as is the hope) remains to be seen. What it will mainly be remembered for is the jettisoning of future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur and the complete restructuring of the goalie ranks, as well as some under-the-radar signings and a good draft.

Brodeur was rendered obsolete when the Devils signed unrestricted free agent goalie Scott Clemmensen from Florida. Clemmensen, a former Devil, had played well when Brodeur went down with an arm injury in 2008-09, but left the Devils for the Panthers, where he had a chance to become a number one. Unfortunately, when Florida reacquired Roberto Luongo at last year’s trading deadline, Clemmensen was pushed aside and made expendable. The Devils quickly snapped him up and he will now likely be Cory Schneider’s backup going into next season, unless another goalie in the system (such as Keith Kinkaid) were to step up in training camp.

Speaking of Cory Schneider, word broke just prior to the writing of this column that the man now considered the ace in New Jersey had signed a multi-year extension with the team, making him a Devil for a “long time.” As per club policy, no details on the contract were disclosed. This is a fantastic move for the Devils, as they shore up their netminders for the future with the departure of Brodeur. Schneider will, undoubtedly, have a lot on his shoulders next season, replacing a surefire Hall of Famer in the nets. But, with years of battling to be the number one both in New Jersey and Vancouver, nobody could be more prepared to finally have the responsibility all to himself.

Besides Clemmensen, the Devils two other main free agent signing moves this offseason were the acquisition of Mike Cammalleri from the Calgary Flames and Martin Havlat, who was a compliance buyout by the San Jose Sharks. Both should add a little more up front for the team. Cammalleri, especially, is a good pickup for a team that sometimes struggles offensively. One of the first questions asked of Cammalleri at his Q and A with the press, in fact, was how good he is in shootouts, relevant following the Devils’ historically bad year in the “skills competition.” The overall feeling is that Cammalleri can be a great offensive spark for the Devils, and mesh well with some of the goal scorers on the team such as Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr. Havlat is hoping to reinvigorate his career and hopes that playing with longtime friend and Czech national teammate Patrik Elias and other fellow Czech Jagr can do just that.

While the top line guys were being reconfigured and put together, the Devils resigned fourth line wonders, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier. These moves should allow the Devils to continue to have that powerful fourth line presence. While their linemate Ryan Carter remains a UFA for the time being, resigning two key components from their 2012 Stanley Cup Final run should allow them to continue to have some depth and strength up and down the lineup.

The Devils’ moves this offseason have been with two goals in mind: to strengthen their team offense and to help tie up the goaltending as they move into the future. Although the latter meant that the team lost a legend and a guy who has been the masked face of the Devils for the past two decades, it also has brought them a goalie in Cory Schneider that will (with luck) be the face of the franchise for the next ten to fifteen years or so. As the team heads into the 2014-15 season, they seem ready to regain their place as an elite team in the Metropolitan Division and the NHL. Here’s to hoping the Devils moves pay off and they can shake things up once the season begins.

Note: This week was a little bit shorter of a column than I wanted, but I have decided to split this week and next weeks’ so that I can talk about the Draft next week. One of the Devils picks (John Quenneville, taken in the 1st Round, 30th Overall) has a connection to early Devils history (he is a relative of original Devil and current Blackhawks coach, Joel Quenneville) that I would like to get into. Till then, have a great week and Let’s Go Devils!

Pat Burns: A Hall of Fame Coach

News broke last week that former Devils coach Pat Burns, who led the team to the 2003 Stanley Cup championship, was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, class of 2014. Burns, who passed away in 2010 after a five year battle with cancer, would have been considered a Hall of Famer in most hockey fans’ minds minus the Stanley Cup win in 2003. The fact that he topped such a wonderful career with the one goal that eluded him all of his years in the National Hockey League was something that, looking back on it, most hockey fans can agree was icing on the cake of a truly remarkable man’s life.

Pat Burns did not have the same career path as most other NHL coaches. He never played professionally and spent the first ten or fifteen years or so of his adult working life as a police officer in Gatineau, Quebec. He had a sharp mind for hockey and used to analyze televised games the next day for his fellow officers before and after work. His co-workers could tell that he was not watching hockey the same way they were. He was almost preparing himself for a career that he did not know was even an option at the time.

After coaching local youth hockey in his spare time, Burns would move on to the job that would get him noticed among the hockey elite: he was hired as an assistant with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Hull Olympiques (now the Gatineau Olympiques – Anthony Brodeur’s team in the QMJHL). Burns juggled the assistant coach’s job with his police duties until Wayne Gretzky became owner of the QMJHL team in 1984. Gretzky immediately hired Burns as the head coach, Burns quit his day job, and a legendary career was launched. Burns coached the major junior team until 1987 when the Montreal Canadiens came calling. Looking for someone to take over the reins of their American Hockey League affiliate, the Sherbrooke Canadiens, the team looked to the young Burns for the 1987-88 season.

The following year, Burns was moved up to the big club when the Habs fired Jean Perron, the coach who had led them to a Cup in 1986. Burns would win the Jack Adams Award (his first of three) as coach of the year that season after leading the Canadiens to the 1989 Stanley Cup Final (ultimately losing to the Calgary Flames). Burns spent four years in Montreal, making the playoffs each season, getting out of the first round, only to lose in the division final each of the three years after going to the Cup Final.

After leaving the pressure cooker that is Montreal, Burns immediately took over the job of rehabilitating the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs for the 1992-93 season. His first season there, the Leafs would make the playoffs after failing to qualify for the two seasons prior. He would then lead them all the way to the 1993 Campbell Conference Final, losing to Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings and denying him a chance to faceoff with his former employers, the Montreal Canadiens, in the Stanley Cup Final. The following year the Leafs also made the final four, losing in the now-named Western Conference Final to the Vancouver Canucks. Burns would lead the Maple Leafs for one and a half seasons more (getting bounced in the first round of the 1995 playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks) before being fired in 1996. Along the way, he picked up another Jack Adams Award in 1993.

His next stop was Boston, when the Bruins hired him in 1997 for the upcoming 1997-98 sesaon. The Bruins had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 1995 (by the eventual Cup champion Devils) and 1996 (by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Panthers) and failed to make the playoffs at all in 1997. In 1998, Burns’ first year behind the bench, the Bruins were again eliminated in the first round, this time by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Capitals. Burns would earn his final Jack Adams Award that year for his turnaround of the Bruins, but success would not be as easy to come by for him with this Original Six team. The following year, Burns coached the team past the first round of the playoffs, defeating the Carolina Hurricanes in six games only to lose in the next round in six games to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, the Buffalo Sabres. The Bruins failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2000 and eight games into the following season, Burns was fired.

In 2002, he joined the New Jersey Devils for what would be his final coaching job. That season, 2002-03, the Devils finished 46-20-10, good enough for 108 points and first place in the Atlantic Division. When playoff time came around, the second-seeded Devils would square off with Burns’ former employer, the Boston Bruins, eliminating them in 5 games. The Devils would do the same to Tampa Bay in the second round; eliminating the Lightning four games to one. In the Eastern Conference Final, the Devils would meet the top-seeded President’s Trophy (best overall regular season record) winning Ottawa Senators. This was a sort of home-coming for Burns, as Gatineau is located geographically very close to Ottawa. The Devils won the opening game in Ottawa 3-2 in overtime. The Senators would get the split at home by taking the next game 4-1. The first game at the Continental Airlines Arena would see the Devils prevail in a defensive duel, 1-0. The Devils then pushed Ottawa to the brink of elimination by winning the next game, 5-2. The Sens then took the next two games, winning 3-1 at Corel Centre and then topping the Devils on their home ice, 2-1 in overtime. Game seven was set for May 23, 2003 at Corel Centre. Jamie Langenbrunner scored two goals, while Jeff Friesen scored the series-clincher with two minutes left and the Devils were on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals for the fourth time in franchise history and Coach Burns would be appearing for the second time in his career. The Devils opponents in the Final would be the upstart Western Conference Champion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

The series opened on May 27 at Continental Airlines Arena with the Devils winning 3-0. They quickly took a two games to zero lead when they won game two by the same score. Anaheim would win game three 3-2 in overtime and game four 1-0 (also in OT) to sweep the two games at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. Back in East Rutherford for game five, the Devils routed the Ducks 6-3 and it was back to California for game six, won by the Ducks 5-2, setting up game seven in New Jersey. The Devils would take that game by a score of 3-0, winning the Stanley Cup for the New Jersey Devils and making Pat Burns a champion.

Burns would coach the Devils for one more season, before stepping down in 2004 due to his bout with cancer. He remained a special assignment coach for the Devils. Pat Burns was a defense-first coach who very much fit the mold of what the Devils had been throughout their glory years. He was known as an intimidating and intense man behind the bench, but most of all, Pat Burns was a winner. He got the most out of his players and they reaped the rewards because of it. Now, Pat Burns can add Hockey Hall of Famer to his long list of credentials.

Note: some of the research material for this article comes from the book Coach: The Pat Burns Story by Toronto sports writer Rosie DiManno. It is a fantastic read and, if you have not already done so, please check it out.

Martin Brodeur: The End of an Era?

July 1 is the day when NHL free agency starts and brings with it a flurry of action as teams scramble to sign the new, high-priced superstar who will plug a hole in their lineup and help to bring them a Stanley Cup. While that will be a concern for the Devils too, what is more pressing for Devils fans will be the future of the greatest goalie certainly in the history of the franchise, if not the game.

Martin Brodeur has had the position of starting goaltender for the New Jersey Devils since 1993-94. In that magical season, Brodeur led the Devils to their best record up to that time with 106 points on 47 wins (the team has since topped both of those totals). He led them deep into the playoffs, only losing to the eventual Cup champion Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. He topped that off by taking home the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year that summer. The following season he would lead the Devils to their first Stanley Cup, knocking off the heavily favored Red Wings. He would win two more Cups, defeating Dallas in 2000 and Anaheim in 2003. He led the Devils to two other Cup Finals in 2001 (where they lost to the Avalanche) and, most recently, 2012 (losing to the LA Kings). His other individual accomplishments include four Vezina Trophies as the NHL’s best goaltender (2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008) and five William M. Jennings Trophies as the goaltender(s) on the team with the fewest goals scored against it who played at least 25 games (1997 (with Mike Dunham), 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2010). He has been named to the NHL First All-Star Team three times: 2003, 2004 and 2007; the Second All-Star Team four times: 1997, 1998, 2006 and 2008; as well as the NHL All Rookie Team in 1994. He is the NHL’s all-time winningest goalie (with 688 wins as of the end of the 2013-14 season), the all-time leader in shutouts with 124 (as of the end of the 2013-14 season). As of the end of the 2013-14 season, he is also the all-time NHL leader in games played, minutes played and playoff shutouts. A skilled puck handler, he has two regular season goals to his credit as well a playoff goal (3 goals total, a record for NHL goaltenders). Brodeur has also had success on the international stage, winning the 2004 World Cup of Hockey for Team Canada, as well as leading Canada to an Olympic gold medal in 2002 and being a member of the 2010 gold medal winning Canadian team.

Now Brodeur is at a crossroads for his career: he has stated that he wants to play another season, as he feels capable of it. Most likely, that season will not be played in a Devils uniform, since the Devils feel that the goalie position is one that they need to get younger at and have a fully prepared Cory Schneider ready in the wings to take over the full-time starting position (not to mention netminders like Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood waiting on the AHL Albany Devils). Although the Devils did not trade him at last year’s trading deadline (rumors had him going to the Minnesota Wild at one point), they will not likely be resigning him this off season. Besides losing the franchise goaltender, the only other thing that would make Devils fans unhappy is that the team, because they are losing him to free agency and not trading him, would be essentially giving him up for nothing, not getting a player or a draft pick in return for him. Things could change, but it seems that is the way the team is looking to go.

Will Brodeur go to a team and sit behind a younger goalie there, existing only to sell replica jerseys for his new team? Will he decide to retire after all? Or will he stay with the Devils in some capacity, resigned and ready for a 23rd season in Devils’ black and red? As far as the free agent market looks for him, most teams are set at the starting goaltending position, but some could use the recognition and fan excitement that signing a superstar on the level of a Martin Brodeur could generate. When thinking of an athlete trying to hang on too long, any sports fan is immediately reminded of Willie Mays’ time with the New York Mets. The difference with Brodeur and Mays is two-fold, though. On the one hand, athletes today have better training habits and keep themselves in better shape year-round (look no further than Marty’s teammate on the Devils, who just resigned with the team for another year, Jaromir Jagr for that). Brodeur is, of course, no exception to this rule and should be able to handle the rigors of another NHL season. Which brings us to the second argument of whether or not Marty should just hang them up: because he feels like he can still go, Marty will want to be a starting goaltender on his new team. Is this possible? As stated above, most NHL teams are pretty much set with young goalies (and they are only getting younger). Hockey is a young man’s game; there is no secret about that. Where would Brodeur end up should he decide to play the 2014-15 season and give the Devils up to Schneider?

Should Marty decide to retire, there would undoubtedly be a place for him in the Devils organization should he want it. However, that is most likely true regardless of whether he retires this year, next year or five years from now, as a Devil or not. He will have his number 30 hanging in the rafters of Prudential Center within months of his official retirement. WFAN radio personality Mike Francesa has often said that athletes, unlike the rest of us, have to deal with growing old twice: once when their careers end and again towards the end of their lives. Knowing this makes it easier to understand where Brodeur is coming from. But will there be a place for him in an NHL where youth is being served? We will all find out in about a week, but no matter what happens, we must know that Martin Brodeur’s Devils and NHL legacies are set in stone.

Crowning the Kings: 2013-14 Season in Review

So the 2013-14 National Hockey League season has come to an end. I know it is a little cliché, but it seems like just yesterday training camp was opening for last year. With only about two and a half months until next season’s training camp and then the pre-season right around the corner, I feel now would be a great time to take a step back and kind of reflect on the 2013-14 season a little bit.

On the Devils front, one of the biggest surprises this season for the team (and the entire league, at that) was Jaromir Jagr, without a doubt. Jagr had a comeback season to say the least, finishing up with a team leading 82 games played, 24 goals and 43 assists for 67 points and a plus-16. His 43 helpers and 67 points also led the team, as did his plus/minus rating. The Devils wasted no time in resigning him once the season was over and Devils fans can look forward to another season of the hockey legend’s brilliance at The Rock in 2014-15.

Another revelation for the Devils was goaltender Cory Schneider; acquired at the Draft last year from Vancouver, Schneider looked to breakout for New Jersey. In the end, he finished with a less-than-stellar 16-15-12 record, which was more indicative of the play in front of him, as the team struggled early on giving him goal support. What was more showing of his play was his .921 save percentage and his 1.97 goals against average. Martin Brodeur, in what might have been his final season in a Devils uniform, finished with a 19-14-6 record and a .901 save percentage with a 2.51 goals against average. Brodeur’s future remains up in the air and fans will find out more come July 1, the first day of free agency. Brodeur has not, as of this time, announced if he will retire or will play another NHL season. If he does play, it will likely not be in New Jersey, as Schneider is ready to assume the mantle of full-time number one for the Devils.

The Devils were a strange animal in 2013-14, as, in all reality, the only thing keeping them out of a playoff spot were their shootout losses. Like penalty shots, shootouts cannot really be practiced. The shooter can study a goalie’s tendencies, as can a goalie study what a shooter is going to do. But sometimes teams will throw something completely new at a goalie (like the Islanders not-quite-within-the-rules back-to-back spin-o-ramas against Marty Brodeur) and it can throw them totally off of their game plan. I am sure the Devils themselves, as professional athletes, would not use or take any excuses in regards to their shootout futility, but bad luck certainly played a role here. Prior to this season, the Devils had been very successful in shootouts. This 180-degree turnaround could only be attributed to the fact that the team desperately needs a goal-scorer to replace Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Hopefully that change comes this July when free agency opens.

For most NHL analysts, the Western Conference looked to be where the eventual Stanley Cup champions would emerge from. Sure the East had some mighty challengers in the Pittsburgh Penguins (who ended up running away with the newly-christened Metropolitan Division, of which the Devils are a member) and the Boston Bruins. But most experts seemed to be looking at perennial favorites like the Blackhawks, the Ducks, the Blues, the Sharks, or even the guys who would end up winning, the Kings as the team that would hoist the Cup come June.

What was a surprise come playoff time was the team that would challenge the West for the Stanley Cup. While some may have seen the Kings as a bit of an underdog (and they were not entirely wrong: they defeated San Jose in the first round after being down 3 games to none, beat Anaheim in the second round when they were down 3 games to two, and won the Conference championship from Chicago after being up 3 games to 1, blowing that and winning in overtime of game 7). The Kings may have had a tough road to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they would face the New York Rangers (who overcame the Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens on their journey to the Finals).

While it pains many Devils fans to say it, the Rangers did have a successful playoff. Overcoming Pittsburgh is especially no small feat. Henrik Lundqvist essentially carried the team on his back at times, mirroring the way Jonathan Quick brought the Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012 (the year the Devils made their Cinderella run to the Cup Finals). Of course, Quick was no slouch this year either and ended up leading the Kings over “the King” in a five game Stanley Cup Final. The Cup-clinching game five itself was compelling hockey and really showcased the two goaltenders abilities. Going two overtimes and ending on Alec Martinez’ corralling of a Tyler Toffoli rebound off of Lundqvist’s blocker, that game was some of the best hockey ever seen in the Finals. The Kings kept things tight-checking, but there were still some amazing chances, most notably Rick Nash of the Rangers hitting the crossbar, a chance that could have sent the series back to Madison Square Garden in the first overtime. In the end, though, it was the Kings who reigned supreme. Justin Williams won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and, when Dustin Brown hoisted the Stanley Cup for LA for the second time in three years, it confirmed what many Devils fans knew in 2012: this team is good.

There is no doubt in many observers’ minds that the Kings will be an elite team for many years to come. That is not to downplay what the Rangers accomplished, as the Devils accomplishment from 2012 (which was a very similar run) should not be derided. The fact is, the Kings are for real and are worthy to be mentioned along with teams like Chicago, Anaheim and Boston when discussing some of the best in the NHL. They are good from their goaltending out and, from a Devils fan’s point of view, recall a lot about the 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup champs. Congratulations to the Los Angeles Kings on winning the Stanley Cup. Congratulations to everyone from their players to their front office to their fans. These are great times for them, but they will likely be continuing for some time to come.

NHL Competition Committee Rule Change: Some Thoughts

On June 9, the NHL Competition Committee – a coalition of players and executives charged with tweaking rules and thereby (hopefully) making the game better. Players on the committee are Mike Cammalleri of the Calgary Flames, Daniel Winnik of the Anaheim Ducks, the St. Louis Blues’ Kevin Shattenkirk, Carolina Hurricanes’ Ron Hainsey and Devils goaltender Cory Schneider. Executives include Flyers’ chairman Ed Snider and four general managers: the Phoenix Coyotes’ Don Maloney, David Poile of the Nashville Predators, Ken Holland from the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins’ Peter Chiarelli. The changes recommended by the Competition Committee are passed on to the NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA’s Executive Board for approval and would go into effect for the 2014-15 season.

While the Committee did recommend changes that were, in some cases, long overdue; one change that was not included has surprised some people. That change was to video replay expansion (especially topical in light of the Los Angeles Kings’ Dwight King’s goal late in game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist). This expansion would allow video review on potential goaltender interference plays that result in goals. On King’s goal in the third period of game 2, referee Dan O’Halloran’s initial call on the ice was that it was a good goal. Lundqvist argued that he had been interfered with, but O’Halloran’s call stood due to lack of video review on these types of plays. That goal made the game 4-3, with L.A. eventually tying it. The Kings would win in the second overtime. Schneider mentioned to Dan Rosen of NHL.com exactly why making changes here would be a problem:

“I think [NHL Commissioner] Gary [Bettman] said it best in the meeting when he said, ‘Once we go to video review there’s an expectation that we’re going to get these calls right all the time,’” Schneider said. “You can have two reasonable people sitting in a room watching the same video and have two very different opinions on that video. It becomes, like Gary said, very complex. The feeling is right now we’re not at the point where we could get a meaningful video review that would have a 100 percent outcome.”

NHL Senior Executive President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said after this meeting that the matter would be further discussed that Wednesday during the NHL general manager meetings. He said that another idea could include a coach’s challenge (similar to that used in football and baseball).

Other ideas coming out of the Competition Committee’s meeting (these will actually be under review to be adopted) include: changing ends in overtime – this move would allow the overtime period to mimic the long-change second period (where team benches are farther from their defending zone necessitating more strategic line changes). This would also affect overtime because, historically, according to Rosen at NHL.com, there have been more goals scored each season in the second period due to  “defensive breakdowns and difficulty getting tired players off the ice because of the distance they need to travel to make a line change on the fly.” Another change to overtime would be arena ice crews being required to do a dry ice scrape prior to overtime instead of just prior to a shootout as is done now.

Another move with more offense in mind is moving the hash marks on the outside of the faceoff circles from 3 ½ feet to 5 feet apart. Schneider told Rosen and NHL.com that it would give forwards more time and room to make plays after they win a faceoff in the defensive zone. It would also cut down on the amount of scrums on a faceoff. Currently, the International Ice Hockey Federation uses 5 feet between the hash marks; however the IIHF generally uses a larger ice surface than the NHL for international tournaments.

One of the more interesting rule change recommendations to come out of these meetings is allowing only one player to be eligible to take a faceoff on an icing call. This player would be allowed one faceoff violation but, instead of being chased out of the faceoff circle, a second violation would result in a two-minute bench minor penalty for delay of game. This penalty is already on the books (Rule 76.6), but the Competition Committee is recommending that it be enforced to keep a winger from trying to create a faceoff violation to give the center an extra ten seconds of rest, thus delaying the game an extra few seconds.

A change to the “Brodeur Rule” would also look to create more offense during the course of a game. The trapezoid behind the goal cage, meant to keep puck-playing goalies like Martin Brodeur from having too much room to move the puck. The trapezoid is currently 18 feet along the goal line and would be increased to 22 feet. The dimensions along the end boards would remain at 28 feet. An extra two feet would allow the goalies to act, not necessarily as a third defenseman helping to create breakouts (as Brodeur was often lauded as during his heyday pre-trapezoid), but to give their defensemen a little more help.

A crackdown on embellishment is the Competition Committee’s final recommendation.

As a fan, I understand and appreciate that these changes are trying to create more offense in a game some feel might be lacking in that particular area. However, I feel too often the NHL is actively trying to go back to the free-wheeling, firewagon days of the 1980s. That era happened organically when players like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux took the game by storm and changed its essence. They were so much better than the rest of their competition that they (and their teams) were able to put up the gaudy numbers that they did. The rest of the league followed suit and defense went by the wayside. I feel that the NHL has found its balance; this is how the game has been played throughout the majority of its history. In other words, the decade from the early 80s to the early 90s was an aberration. Hockey is a defensive based game (the phrase “offense wins games, defense wins championships” comes to mind) and, while I definitely agree with a lot of the changes the Competition Committee wants to implement, I cannot help but feel that some of it is just a half way attempt to bring more offense (and, thus, hook the “casual fans” who like the ESPN-like highlights and do not appreciate the finer points of a defensive duel) to the game and really, fix what is not broken.

Lewis Katz and the Devils’ Glory Days

With the recent passing of former Devils’ part owner Lewis Katz in a Massachusetts plane crash, now would be a great time to look back at Katz’ group, Puck Holdings (a part of YankeeNets), time as Devils owners, which coincided with some of the most successful years of New Jersey Devils hockey as a tribute, of sorts to the legacy of the late Mr. Katz.

YankeeNets (known today as Yankee Global Enterprises, LLC) formed in 1999 when ownership of Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees and the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets merged. The Devils came into the picture a year later when, as the franchise was defeating the Dallas Stars for its second Stanley Cup in 2000, Dr. John McMullen (the team’s original owner who had moved the Colorado Rockies to the Meadowlands in 1982) sold the team for $175 million. YankeeNets and Puck Holdings original goal in acquiring the Devils was similar to why the Yankees had bought the Nets in the first place: programming for what would become the YES Network. There was also the intention to move the team to a new arena in Newark (this goal would be achieved by Jeff Vanderbeek, a partner in Puck Holdings, who would buy the team outright from YankeeNets in 2004, with the building of the Prudential Center). The Devils would never join the Yankees and the Nets on the YES Network, instead re-upping with Cablevision owned MSG Network and continuing to have their games shown alongside the Rangers and Islanders.

From 2000 to 2004, the team was largely left in the hands of General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who would be named the CEO of the Devils and the Nets going in to the 2000-01 season. He would remain in those positions until the sale of the Nets to Bruce Ratner in 2004 and the sale of the Devils to current owners Joshua Harris and David S. Blitzer in 2013 (Scott O’Neil now holds that position with the team). Lamoriello’s continued influence, as well as the new resources allowed them by being connected to the Yankees, would be felt on the team as they won the Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003 as well as an Eastern Conference Championship in 2001 (losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals in seven games). Individual award winners during this period saw Scott Stevens take home the 2000 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, Scott Gomez winning the Calder Trophy as 2000’s Rookie of the Year, John Madden being named 2001 Frank J. Selke Trophy winner (best defensive forward) and Martin Brodeur’s 2003 winning of the Vezina Trophy (outstanding goaltender). The team also won two Atlantic Division regular season championships: in 2000-01 and 2002-03.

While the Nets were also experiencing some of their best times in their history in New Jersey at this time (going to the NBA Finals, but ultimately losing in 2002 and 2003); and the Yankees were continuing their winning ways of making the MLB playoffs, including World Series appearances in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003, things were looking very bright for YankeeNets and their subsidiaries. Since the breakup, the teams have remained relatively successful (however only the Yankees have won a major championship since: claiming a World Series title in 2009 – although the Devils did make a return to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, losing in six games to Los Angeles) and, of course, the YES Network has become a boon to the Yankees and the (now-known-as) Brooklyn Nets. All three teams have built new facilities – the Yankees having built a new Yankee Stadium across the street from the original, the Nets now calling downtown Brooklyn home at the Barclays Center and the Devils moving from Continental Airlines Arena (site of two of the franchise’s three Stanley Cup victories) to the beautiful Prudential Center in downtown Newark, New Jersey.

For the Devils in particular, while there were some issues with ownership’s finances during Jeff Vanderbeek’s tenure (mostly tied to the building of the Prudential Center and the timing of it), the issues had little to do with the team itself on or off the ice, but rather the NHL’s instability at the time (the time between Puck Holdings ownership of the team and the current ownership group dovetailed neatly with two NHL lockouts, one of which resulted in a completely lost 2004-05 season) and with it the rule changes on ice and the off ice financial upheaval of the league. While the Devils did remain competitive, the new reality of the NHL was that dynasties were a thing of the past – indeed, the last team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups remains the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings.

The Puck Holdings era also saw the team molded in the image of Lou Lamoriello more than at any time during his tenure, save maybe the 1994-1995 era teams. In subsequent years, the team would spend a lot of money to keep superstars like Ilya Kovalchuk in a Devils uniform, the 2000 to 2003 clubs were more better represented by undrafted free agents like Madden and Brian Rafalski, the emergence of homegrown draftees Petr Sykora, Gomez and Patrik Elias, as well as shrewd trades that brought in players like Jason Arnott and aging megastar Alexander Mogilny. There was a winning formula that Lamoriello had found and captured in those days and he was allowed to do that through the hands off nature by the Puck Holdings group. Again, even though Vanderbeek largely went the same route, it was some of the personnel decisions made during his tenure (coaching and player-wise) that would take away some of the Devils stability and, ultimately, lead to early exits from the playoffs, or worse missing the playoffs altogether. Chief among those problems has been trading for and signing Kovalchuk to an outrageous contract, incurring the wrath of the NHL over it and taking the penalties, and then losing him to the KHL as well as failing to resign Zach Parise and then not replacing him in the lineup, giving up his scoring output in the lineup. With current ownership’s bankroll and commitment to their business plan, the team can hopefully regain its footing in that regard. The coaching carousel (about nine coaching changes from 2003 to 2011) has been an issue that, hopefully, has evened out with Pete DeBoer’s takeover of the team prior to the 2011-12 season.

So, while the team has enjoyed success under all of their ownership groups, going back to Dr. McMullen, the real “glory days” of the Devils time in New Jersey has to be that period coinciding with Puck Holdings time with the team from 2000 to 2003. The common denominator in any of the Devils success since 1987 has been Lou Lamoriello, but now that Lou faces the twilight of his career as a National Hockey League general manager, the challenge for current ownership will be to find an eventual replacement and keep the team moving forward. History has shown that one of the best things Lewis Katz’ group did was to give Lou Lamoriello more decision-making power. That led to unmatched success for the team. How will current ownership move forward when the time comes for Lamoriello to hang ‘em up and the team has to move into another era?

Jaromir Jagr: International Superstar

With the elimination of the Czech Republic by Sweden in the bronze medal game in this year’s World Championship, held in Minsk, Belarus, Jaromir Jagr announced his retirement from international play. While Jagr had only half-seriously, it seems now, mentioned to The Star Ledger prior to last season’s Olympic break that he wanted to play in the 2018 Olympics (at which he would be 46 years old), the close to this chapter of Jagr’s storied career is a big one.

Many know about his exploits in the National Hockey League: most career game-winning goals (124), most goals by a European born player (705), assists by a European player (1,050) and most points by a European born player (1,755) – among many other records – as well as the accolades: two time Stanley Cup champion (1991 and 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins), five time Art Ross Trophy winner (1995, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001) as the league’s scoring champ, three time Lester B. Pearson Award (player’s MVP – 1999, 2000 and 2006), the 1999 Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, seven time NHL First Team All-Star and a member of the 1991 NHL All-Rookie Team. However, there is another side to Jagr’s career, on the larger ice sheet of international play that is rarely publicized outside of his native Czech Republic.

Jagr began his international career representing Czechoslovakia at the 1989 European Junior Championship. There the team would win a silver medal while Jagr would pick up 12 points in five games played (8 goals and 4 assists). The following year, Czechoslovakia would place third in both the World Junior Championships and the World Championships. Jagr was a member of both of those bronze medal winning teams and would post 18 points in seven games played in the WJC but only 5 points in ten games at the World Championships.

Jagr’s North American tournament debut was at the 1991 Canada Cup, the season after he had made his remarkable debut with Pittsburgh. The young Pens’ star posted a goal in five games played as the Czechs finished in sixth place. Jagr would have to wait until 1994 to represent what was now known as the Czech Republic at the World Championships. The team played to a seventh place finish as Jagr had two assists in just three games played.

Jagr’s next two forays into international hockey would see two extremely different finishes. At the 1996 World Cup of Hockey (the late summer tournament that replaced the Cold War-era Canada Cup) the Czechs would finish in eighth place (the lowest a Jagr-led Czech team would ever finish in international play) and Jagr would have one goal in three games played. That debacle would be followed up two years later at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, where NHL stars were allowed to compete for the first time in Olympic history. It was here where Jagr would total five points (one goal and four assists in six games) and the Czech Republic would finish first and win the gold medal. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Jagr’s international career and would only add to his legend as one of the greatest of all time.

Jagr and the Czechs followed that performance up with a seventh place finish four years later in 2002 in their Olympic title defense at Salt Lake City. Jagr had 2 goals and 3 assists in a quick four game exit. It was a disappointing return to the international stage for Jagr and that same year, he would compete in the World Championships finishing with an even 4 goals and 4 assists in seven games as the team moved to a fifth place finish.

The year 2004 saw Jagr compete internationally in two tournaments: the World Championships (hosted by the Czechs in Prague and Ostrava) where the Czech Republic was eliminated by the Americans in the Quarterfinals, 3-2. In that tournament, Jagr had five goals and four assists in seven games. Jagr’s other international appearance in 2004 was in the World Cup of Hockey where he ended with one goal and one assist in five games while the Czechs won the bronze medal.

The following year saw World Championship gold for Jagr and the Czechs (he had 2 goals, 7 assists and 9 points in 8 games), while 2006 gave Jagr a return to the Olympic Games. In those Olympics, Jagr had 2 goals and 5 assists in 8 games, helping the Czechs to a bronze medal finish.

After a three year absence from the international scene, Jagr returned in 2009 at the World Championships and scored 3 goals and 6 assists in seven games. The Czechs plodded to a sixth place finish that year and would do only slightly better at the Olympics the following year. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, where Jagr was the Czech Republic’s flag bearer marching into the Olympic Stadium at the opening ceremonies, the Czechs finished in seventh place while Jagr had only 2 goals and 1 assist in five games played. That year’s World Championships saw Czech Republic win gold and Jagr score 3 goals and 4 assists in nine games. That tournament was notable for Jagr as he set a personal “best” for PIMs with 12. Twenty eleven’s World Championships saw the Czechs drop to third place with a bronze medal while Jagr had nine points in nine games (5 goals, 4 assists).

Jaromir Jagr’s international career came to an end in 2014 with an appearance in the Sochi Olympics, where the Czechs would finish sixth (Jagr had 2 goals and 1 assist in five games) and in the World Championships, where the team finished fourth and Jagr finished up his last international tournament with 4 goals and 4 assists in ten games.

Although the Czech Republic would not medal in either of Jagr’s final two appearances with the team, the current Devil (who had just resigned with the NHL team for the 2014-15 season) has certainly made his mark internationally. As in the NHL, Jagr was brilliant in his international career and a player truly deserving of the word “superstar.”

Hopefully for Devils fans, Jagr will not get a chance to rethink his decision to retire from the Czech National Team (as the World Championships are played at the same time as the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the teams are usually populated with guys whose teams either missed the second season or were eliminated early on). So, while he has exited the world stage NHL fans in general and Devils fans in particular look forward to seeing what the notorious gym and rink rat Jagr can do for the next year or so.

Mario Lemieux: Almost a Devil

In 1984, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils battled to the last game of the season, not for Stanley Cup glory, but for the coveted first pick in that summer’s NHL Draft. The player expected to go number one overall that year was Mario Lemieux of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Laval Voisins. At this point in the NHL’s history, there was no draft lottery: the team that finished last overall in the league got the first pick. Lemieux could be the type of player that would change the fortunes of a struggling franchise and that urgency was not lost on management of the two struggling teams.

Teams were preparing to get a crack at Lemieux as far back as 1981 (Montreal traded Pierre Larouche to the Hartford Whalers that year in exchange for the Whalers first round pick in the hope that Hartford would finish last come 1984 and Mario could be picked by his hometown team). While Montreal’s gamble did not pay off, come the 1983-84 season, two teams were in the hunt for Lemieux: the Pens and the Devils. As the NHL’s bottom feeders, “Le Magnifique” was within grasp. As the season progressed, Pittsburgh and New Jersey were neck-and-neck at the bottom of the league standings. By the time March rolled around, things started to get a little tense as, on March 5, the Penguins traded former Norris Trophy winning defenseman, Randy Carlyle to Winnipeg for a first round draft choice and a player to be named later. That player would go on to be Moe Mantha, obtained after the season ended. Next, Pens General Manager Eddie Johnston sent the team’s number one goalie (Roberto Romano) down to their American Hockey League affiliate in Baltimore. He was replaced with Vincent Tremblay, a goalie not quite on the level of Romano (he allowed 24 goals in 4 games once called up). And so it was, with a team of minor leaguers and castoffs, the Pens would finish three points behind the Devils (a record of 16-58-8 for 38 points versus the Devils’ 17-56-7 for 41 points). The Devils, to their credit, continued to play their regulars. When the draft – held in Montreal – came around, the Penguins (as expected) picked Lemieux while the Devils, with the second overall pick, selected Kirk Muller of the Guelph Platers of the Ontario Hockey League.

While Kirk Muller was certainly a fantastic player, a franchise player worthy of the first overall pick in any other draft year and the Devils first real superstar, Mario Lemieux would go on to a career rivaled in the modern era only perhaps by Wayne Gretzky. Famously, “Super Mario” would score on his first shift on the ice in the NHL and, in fact, on his first NHL shot. More importantly than that, though, Mario would help to revitalize an NHL franchise that had not had a winning season since 1979 and not made the playoffs since 1982; a team that had filed for bankruptcy back in 1975 (the first NHL team to do so since World War II). Within seven years (1991) the Penguins were Stanley Cup champs thanks largely to Lemieux. The Pens would add another Cup in 1992 under Lemieux’s captaincy. Lemieux would fall in love with the city of Pittsburgh, living there, becoming a naturalized American citizen, and, when the Penguins ran into financial trouble again in the late 1990s/early 2000s and were on the verge of moving (as had been threatened prior to Mario’s arrival in Pittsburgh), he swooped in to buy the team, securing their future in Pittsburgh and helping to get financing for their new arena. Mario Lemieux would be the Pittsburgh Penguins savior not once, but twice.

The rest of the fallout from that draft included the NHL going to a lottery system whereby the lower you finished, while giving you a better chance at gaining the number one overall pick, did not guarantee you the first pick. The Devils, with Muller, would actually see more immediate improvement than the Penguins (making the playoffs in 1988 and going all the way to the Wales Conference Finals that year) while the Pens would not make the playoffs for the first time in the Lemieux era until 1989. However, by 1991, the Devils would trade “Captain Kirk” to the Canadiens for Tom Chorske and Stephane Richer, who was a key component on the Devils first Stanley Cup team in 1995.

In the end, it could be said that everything worked out for everyone involved: the Penguins got Mario and he led them to two Stanley Cups as a player and a third as team owner. But more importantly on the Pittsburgh side of things: he helped keep the team in the city not once, but twice. From the NHL’s perspective, they got a superstar player who would help revitalize a team that was a doormat really since their inception into the league and got incentive to fix a draft system that was broken. The Devils got an immediate superstar in Kirk Muller, who would lead them through the late 80s as captain and undisputed leader. His trade to Montreal would also bring them one of the bigger figures from their ’95 Cup team.

It is easy to look back at this whole affair with 20/20 hindsight and see how everything played out fine for both the teams and the league. Both the Pens and the Devils have the same number of Cups today at three, so we could say that everything worked out. Conversely, there could be a tendency to say that the Devils got the short end of the stick and that they could have had even more should Lemieux been drafted by them. It did not work out that way and we will never know. What is known is how deathly serious getting Mario was at the time. The Devils and the Penguins were in dire straits as franchises and Lemieux was a franchise player, he could only go to one team, but the hockey world got two stable, great franchises out of him.

The Turnpike Rivalry

When discussing New Jersey Devils rivalries, your first inclination is to go right to their feud with the New York Rangers and the Hudson River Rivalry. There is another rivalry, though, that began merely as geographic unpleasantness and, due to the high-intensity stakes of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has grown to be something more: the Devils’ and the Philadelphia Flyers – the Turnpike Rivalry.

Philadelphia came into the National Hockey League during the 1967-68 doubling of the league franchises, being admitted when Baltimore fell out of the running for a team. The Flyers of the late-1960s were not the “Broad Street Bullies” that would come to be the team’s trademark. And, in fact, it was due to the team’s lack of physical toughness that would lead to the team acquiring players like Dave “the Hammer” Schultz and Bobby Clarke built mostly through the draft. Going into the 1970s, the Broad Street Bullies were ready to ride and the Flyers would become the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup in 1974 and then won it again in 1975. The Flyers would lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1976 Stanley Cup Final, as the Habs were beginning a dynasty that would win them four straight Cups from 1976 to 1979.

The Flyers team that would face the New York Islanders in the 1980 Stanley Cup Final was a much different team than the Broad Street Bullies in their heyday and would lose to the Isles to kick off New York’s dynasty of four straight Cups. It would be five years before Philly would return to the Finals, as they faced Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in 1985 and lost in five games after winning game one. They would lose to Edmonton again in 1987 and it would be ten years before Philly would get another shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Devils first faced off with the Flyers in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals. The Flyers would take out the Buffalo Sabres and the defending Stanley Cup champion Rangers to get to the penultimate round, while the Devils beat the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins to get to that round. Game one kicked off the series on June 3, 1995 at The Spectrum and resulted in a 4-1 Devils win. Game two brought a 5-2 Devils victory as the scene shifted to the Meadowlands for game three. For the next two games on Devils home ice, Jersey’s Team would squander their 2-0 series lead by losing 3-2 in overtime in game three and 4-2 in game four. The teams now returned to the City of Brotherly Love tied at two games apiece, but with just 44.2 seconds left to play in the game, Claude Lemieux’s slap shot just inside the Flyers blueline sailed past goaltender Ron Hextall’s blocker and gave the Devils a 3-2 lead that they would hold on to. Game six back at the Meadowlands saw New Jersey clinch their first Prince of Wales Trophy with a 4-2 victory over the Flyers. The Devils would meet Detroit in their first Stanley Cup Final, and would complete a sweep that would net the franchise their first Stanley Cup. Leading scorers for the series were: Devils: Randy McKay, 4 goals, 3 assists and 7 points; Flyers: Eric Lindros, 2 goals, 3 assists and 5 points.

The teams would not meet for another five years, but it was well worth the wait! Meeting again in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000, the Devils path included wins over the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs; while Philadelphia defeated Buffalo and Pittsburgh to get there. Game one at the First Union Center commenced on May 14, 2000 and gave the Devils a 1-0 series lead with a 4-1 win. Then things got interesting. Philly would take the next three, including two on New Jersey’s home ice. Game two was taken 4-3; game three, 4-2; game four was won 3-1 with current Flyers head coach Craig Berube scoring the game winner. The Devils now found themselves down three games to one and on the brink of elimination. For the Devils, it was time to get to work. And that they did. Game five in Philadelphia saw Bobby Holik net the game winner as the Devils cut the deficit to three games to two with a 4-1 win. Game six back at the Meadowlands and Alexander Mogilny capped a 2-1 win for Martin Brodeur and the Devils to force a game seven. Game seven: nothing says more to a sports fan than those two words and it was Patrik Elias who came through as the hero, putting a dagger through the Flyers playoff hopes, giving the Devils a 2-1 win and sending them to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in their history where they would face and defeat the Dallas Stars for their second Stanley Cup in five years. Leading scorers were: for the Devils, Jason Arnott with 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points and for the Flyers, Rick Tocchet with 4 goals and 2 assists for 6 points and Mark Recchi with 3 goals and 3 assists for 6 points.

The teams next met in 2004’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, where the Devils came in as the defending Stanley Cup champs. Unfortunately for the Devils, it was a short five game series with the Flyers dethroning them. The Devils only win came in game three 4-2 at Continental Airlines Arena on April 12 of 2004 as the Flyers bounced them and marched on in the playoffs. The Devils leading scorer was Scott Gomez with 0 goals and 6 assists for 6 points while the Flyers leading scorer was Alexei Zhamnov with 3 goals and 5 assists for 8 points.

Twenty ten was a year that was another mediocre effort for the Devils in the first round against the Flyers. The Devils were again eliminated in five games with their only win coming this time in game two, 5-3 at Prudential Center. The Devils had lost the first game and would lose game three in OT, 3-2. They would never recover and be eliminated in two more games. For the Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk would lead them in scoring with 2 goals and 4 assists for 6 points while for the Flyers, Mike Richards was the leader with 2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points. The Flyers would continue on to the Stanley Cup Finals that year, losing in a dramatic game seven to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The team’s most recent playoff meeting came in 2012 in the Conference Semifinals. This series was all Devils (after they were victimized in OT in game one by Danny Briere, giving the Flyers a 4-3 home win). After that, the Devils took control and never looked back. They won game two 4-1 with David Clarkson bringing the heroics in the City of Brotherly Love. Game three would be settled in an extra session at the Prudential Center in Newark, 4-3 with Alexei Ponikarovsky notching the game winner for the Devils. Game four was won 4-2 by the Devils in Newark; while game six would wrap things up in Philly with a 3-1 Devils win. Kovalchuk was again the Devils leading scorer with 2 goals and 5 assists totaling 7 points, while Briere led the Flyers with 3 goals and 2 assists for 5 points. The Devils would march all the way to the Cup Finals that year, only to be upended in that series by the Los Angeles Kings, who won their first Stanley Cup.

The Devils-Flyers rivalry, while not quite as heralded as the Devils-Rangers rivalry has produced just as many memorable moments and games as the Hudson River version. Like the Rangers, there is certainly no love lost between the teams or their fans and the balance of power has shifted back and forth over the years, but one thing remains constant: if the Devils and the Flyers get together in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is almost a guarantee that there will be tough, hard-nosed hockey being played.

The Hudson River Rivalry

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!