(Lee Stempniak of the Devils scoring a goal in the second period on Tuesday night – @NJDevils)
The Rangers-Devils rivalry has been one of the best in the NHL in the past 25 years, featuring memorable playoff moments and some legendary players.
The Rangers of Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch, Wayne Gretzky, and Mike Richter faced off with the Devils’ Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Scott Niedermayer, and Patrik Elias.
The fierce rivalry was marked by their playoff battles, starting with the Rangers outlasting the Devils in seven games in 1992. That was followed by an epic Eastern Conference Finals series that also went seven games and ended with Stephane Matteau’s famous goal. They met in the second round in 1997, a series marked by Mike Richter’s bare-handed save preserving a shutout in Game 2 and Adam Graves getting a game-winning goal to clinch the series in the fifth game for the Rangers, an upset of the top-seeded Devils.
Incredibly, the Rangers missed the playoffs starting in 1998 and did not return until 2006 and faced the Devils in the first round. The Devils swept that series, and it was marked by their shutting down of Jaromir Jagr. It only took two years for them to meet again, in the first round in 2008. Martin Brodeur’s battles with Sean Avery were the most memorable part of that series, which was quickly won by the Rangers. They then faced off in an epic Eastern Conference Finals in 2012, won in an upset by the Devils in six games over the top-seeded Rangers.
The rivalry has been a mismatch in the last few years, as the Devils have missed the playoffs, while the Rangers made deep playoff runs, and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2014.
This year is a different story, as the teams are in the thick of a playoff race, separated by a couple of points with the second half of the season under way.
The Devils beat the Rangers in their first meeting this season, on October 18, 2015 at The Garden in overtime. That was New Jersey’s first win of the season, and they have rode the momentum ever since.
Devils Head Coach John Hynes said of the rivalry with the Rangers, “I think the rivalry’s been, you can see the intensity level surrounding the game, whether it’s the fans, the players, even in the pregame skate, the aura around the rink is a little different when you have some of these games, so they’re fun to play, you know, at this point, so far, these games are pretty meaningful, That’s what you strive for as competitive people, is you want to be in competitive games and these are them, so you know, the record doesn’t really matter, but you can see the intensity level of the rivalry and we need to make sure we stick with it.”
The Devils hosted the Rangers on Tuesday night at the Prudential Center, and it was intense throughout, marked by the energy in the sellout crowd of 16.514 which seemed evenly split between the blue of the Rangers and Devils red.
The Rangers got the scoring started when J.T. Miller scored on a perfect set-up from Derick Brassard and Jesper Fast with 6:29 left in the first period.
The Rangers had many high-quality chances in the first, and Devils goalie Cory Schneider was up to the challenge, as he kept it at one with many point-blank saves.
The Devils opened the second period on a power play, resulting from a penalty taken by the Rangers’ Derek Stepan with five seconds left in the first.
New Jersey took advantage, as Lee Stempniak, who was camped in front of the Rangers net, put in a rebound off a shot from the blue line by Eric Gelinas to tie it at 1.
The Rangers challenged, as it looked like Stempniak might have made contact with Ranger goalie Henrik Lundquist. The goal was upheld, so the game was tied and it stayed that way until the third.
The Rangers wasted no time in the third, taking just 2:06 for Miller to get his second of the game, this time set up by Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle.
Incredibly, just 1:07 later, Devils rookie Joseph Blandisi came down the left side and fired a wrist shot by Lundqvist to tie it at 2.
Blandisi said of the goal, “I kind of had the same angle in the first period and I passed it off, so I knew he was probably going to think I was passing again. So I maybe caught him cheating a little bit and I was able to beat him on the short side.”
Blandisi said of scoring against the Rangers, “Goals in this league are always good but tonight’s game was definitely a rivalry game and I think the important thing to me is it helped us get the win. I think it was a pretty key goal at the time where they had just scored and it definitely brought some life back to the team.”
After the goal, Blandisi celebrated by jumping into the glass, and he said of it, “Lots of emotions going through my head. It was an emotional game. I don’t know what I was thinking. It just came out. It was just an emotion-driven celebration for sure. I just tried to grab the closest thing to me and take my energy out on it.”
Hynes said of the celebration, “It was good. The youthful exuberance. It was a big goal against a real quality team in a very competitive game. It was a key point in the game. It was such a competitive game. They wound up getting the lead. We didn’t really have a sag in our game at all, but I think that gave us a little extra jump to be able to get the tie so quickly after their goal.”
Later in the third, with 10:41 remaining, Oscar Lindberg took a penalty for interference, just the second penalty of the game for the Rangers. It wound up being just as costly as the first one, as the Devils got a goal from David Schlemko with five seconds left on the power play to take a 3-2 lead with 8:46 remaining.
It was quite a turn of events for Schlemko, who had turned the puck over just 100 seconds earlier, which allowed Ryan McDonagh a short-handed chance that Schneider made a big save on.
On the goal being a bit of redemption for him, Schlemko said, “I was pretty low after giving up that breakaway. I was lucky to get a chance to redeem myself.”
The Devils held on for the thrilling win, and improved to 26-20-5, 57 points, moving to just two points behind the Rangers, who have 59 points, and their record fell to 27-18-5.
Cory Schneider, who had 31 saves, said of having a big win coming out of the All-Star Break, “It is big, especially after having a tough loss (in Pittsburgh) going into the break, didn’t want to bookend it like that and we’re gonna see this guys two more times in the next few weeks. It’s good to see that we’re both playing hard and well, and it was a fun game, so I’m sure the next two will be fun as well.”
Schneider said of the motivation for the Devils going into this game, “The coaching staff did a great job to prepare us to make sure that, hey, this is where the second half kind of unofficially begins. I think what we had been lacking recently a little bit was our intensity for 60 minutes. We had spurts of it, good play and some bad play, but I think our puck battles, our intensity, our kind of willing to mix it up a bit was good, and I think you need that. Games like that bring this can bring that out of you. Hopefully, it’s something we can hang on to and keep doing the rest of the run here.”
Travis Zajac said of the Devils’ mindset heading into this one, “I think it always helps playing a divisional rival like that, I think you get engaged from the beginning and knowing it was an important game with us chasing them. I don’t think it took much to get up today just knowing the situation we’re in and we stuck with it.”
Schneider said of the Devils coming back from a goal twice, “Special teams is a huge part of it, I think. We got that second power play chance in the third and we cashed in on it. I think you look at the differences in the game, and that was a difference. We were Plus-2 in the special teams department, so if they cash in one of theirs (power plays) in the second or third there, it’s a different game. I thought our special teams was huge, and obviously Blender (Blandisi) there with the big individual effort on the tying goal to just put one in, that’s what we need and sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t, but I think we kept the momentum and that put them back on their heels.
Schneider, who joined the Devils in 2013, said of the atmosphere being the best he has experienced in his time in New Jersey, “It could be, yeah. There’ve been some good ones, but this one, obviously, there were a good number of Rangers fans, which is fun, but glad that our fans got to cheer last and loudest and they were great tonight too. This rivalry, the more I get into it, the more I’m enjoying it. It’s always nice to be on the winning side though.”
Blandisi said of the increased intensity level, “Oh yeah, one-hundred percent. That’s probably one of the closest games to being in the playoffs. It was unbelievable to see how many of their fans came out, too. You almost couldn’t tell which home team scored.”