Rangers-Devils: A Simmering Rivalry Gets Some Playoff Heat

Mark Messier and Ken Daneyko were good friends while growing up in Edmonton, Alberta. Messier was a few years older, but always supportive of his younger skating pal. He eventually wound up in Daneyko’s wedding party, and their close friendship continued after they made it to the N.H.L.

That is, until 1991, when Messier was traded to the Rangers.

“When he came to New York, everything changed,” said Daneyko, a three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman who spent his entire 20-year career with the Devils. “All friendships were put on hold because too much was at stake. We hated them, they hated us, and the fans don’t like each other, either.”

The rivalry between the Rangers and the Devils has not always been white hot. It took time to develop and cooled off for stretches when one team lagged, but it has long been a smoldering fire just waiting to be stoked.

“The way those rivalries start is from playoff series,” said Patrick Kane, who won three Stanley Cup championships with Chicago before he was traded to the Rangers in February. “I know these teams haven’t faced each other for a while in the playoffs, but it’s still a big rivalry.”

The last time these teams faced off in the postseason, the series ended on Adam Henrique’s overtime winner for the Devils, a shot past Henrik Lundqvist in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on May 25, 2012. It was also the final game of Chris Kreider’s unique rookie season. He joined the Rangers straight from Boston College and was thrown right into the N.H.L. playoffs, where he scored five goals in 18 games without having played in a single regular-season game.

Three of those goals came against the Devils, but they were not what Kreider recalled when he was asked about the series.

The last time the Rangers and the Devils met in the playoffs, in 2012, center Adam Henrique scored the series-winning goal for New Jersey in overtime.Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times

“Losing,” he said. “That’s what I remember. I mean, it’s a totally different situation now. Different teams, different players. It’s apples and oranges.”

The snarly tussle will be renewed starting Tuesday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, with Kreider and new cast members providing the fuel.

“It’s definitely going to bring the rivalry back up,” said Gerard Gallant, the Rangers’ coach. “I mean, there’s always been a rivalry, but when you play teams in the playoffs, it’s definitely going to help.”

The teams’ arenas are roughly 14 miles apart and separated by the Hudson River. Their fans intermingle at games, in bars, at workplaces and sometimes within families. Both fan groups infiltrate each other’s arena, and the last time the teams met, in March in Newark, half the building seemed to be wearing Rangers blue.

“If I got to decide, there’d be a little bit less of them in here,” Devils forward Erik Haula said. “But it makes it intense for everyone.”

They have faced each other six times in the playoffs, with the Devils winning two of the last three matchups (in 2012 and 2006) and the Rangers winning the first three, including the best one of all: the epic 1994 Eastern Conference finals.

“There were Hall of Famers all over the ice,” Daneyko recalled. “It was one of the best playoff series in the history of hockey.”

It ended with one of the most famous broadcasting calls in professional sports, when Howie Rose yelled out, “Matteau, Matteau, Matteau!” on WFAN radio, forever adding Stéphane Matteau’s series-winning goal to the lexicon of legendary sports moments. Rose then screamed out that the Rangers had “one more hill to climb, baby,” meaning the Stanley Cup finals, where they beat the Vancouver Canucks for their first title since 1940, erasing decades of pain for the franchise and its fans.

“There was a lot more riding on that goal than who was going to play for the Stanley Cup,” Rose said.

A Rangers fan since 1966 when he was 12, Rose said that to understand the import of that goal one must go way back, long before the Devils arrived in New Jersey in 1982 (when they relocated from Colorado after starting out in Kansas City, Mo.). Ten years before that, the Islanders were the new team in the New York metropolitan area, seemingly created to torment Rangers fans by winning four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1979-80 to 1982-83. Islanders fans rubbed it in their faces with incessant chants of “1940.”

“It infuriated Rangers fans beyond what anyone could even comprehend today,” Rose said. “That’s the back story. Now, you’ve got another team, that comes to New Jersey, and the last thing a Rangers fan could tolerate was to see another team come into this market and step on and over the Rangers.”

In their first playoff meeting, in the first round in 1992, the Rangers beat the Devils in seven games. By 1994, the Devils had a new color scheme and a better team to match the highly talented Rangers.

Coincidentally, the 1994 Rangers had 52 wins and 112 points, the same as this year’s Devils. And the 1994 Devils had 47 wins and 106 points, matching the win total of the current Rangers, who earned one more point, 107. The current teams are so evenly matched that betting outlets have made the Rangers the only even-money “underdog” in the playoff field.

“I like all those guys, but I’m sure they would all say the same thing,” said Jimmy Vesey, a Rangers winger who played for the Devils last year. “It’s the playoffs. It’s serious, and definitely no friends out there.”

In 1994, the Devils won Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, but Messier declared before Game 6 that the Rangers would win. In one of the most remarkable performances in team sports, he backed it up. The Devils led, 2-0, with under two minutes to play in the second period, when Messier assisted on Alex Kovalev’s goal. Messier scored three goals of his own in the third.

“An all-time great took charge: That was our learning curve for what came a year later,” Daneyko said, referring to the Devils’ championship in 1995. “Did we get ahead of ourselves? Absolutely. Did we squeeze our sticks, tighten up on our heels and let the Rangers take over? Yes.”

The Rangers celebrating their victory over the Devils after Stéphane Matteau’s overtime goal in Game 7 of the epic 1994 Eastern Conference finals.Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times

In a Game 7 for the ages, the Devils trailed, 1-0, with under 10 seconds to play, when Valeri Zelepukin tied it — the second time the Devils scored after pulling the goalie in the series. The teams fought through an excruciatingly tense and scoreless first overtime. Then, 4 minutes 24 seconds into the second, Matteau hustled behind the net and, as his teammate Esa Tikkanen drove in front, slipped the puck in off Martin Brodeur’s glove, eliciting Rose’s chilling call.

While watching the replay on their monitor, Sal Messina, Rose’s booth partner, wondered if perhaps it was Tikkanen who scored the historic goal. Rose gulped silently.

“I’m thinking to myself, Oh no, I’m either going to be the biggest laughingstock in N.H.L. history,” Rose recalled, “or I’m going to have to go into a studio and overdub, ‘Tikkanen, Tikkanen, Tikkanen!’”

Starting Tuesday, some new players may join Matteau, Messier, Daneyko, Brodeur, Lundqvist and Henrique in the rivalry’s pantheon.

Perhaps it will be the Rangers’ Jacob Trouba leveling a devastating open-ice hit on an unaware opponent, as Scott Stevens did with the Devils. Maybe Jack Hughes will score a hat trick for the Devils, or Kane will do it in his first playoff appearance with the Rangers. Or maybe a name no one expects, like Matteau in 1994, will become part of a new history.

Haula, Haula, Haula. Or Vesey, Vesey, Vesey.

“I expect it to be a classic,” Daneyko said. “I think it’s going seven games, and will be epic.”

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