Sunday morning will yield a normal preview. Today, I want to reach for the larger meaning of this game. When the Winter Classic was first played in 2008, it's been a national showcase ever since. Two teams on national television in an outdoor stadium filled with all kinds of fans. The games have featured teams with large fanbases (Believe it or not, the Sabres were hot in 2008) , the ratings have been notable, and the crowds have been great. It stood to reason that rather than having teams wait until they get their own, the league expanded the concept to the Stadium Series.
I always felt that the New Jersey Devils would be involved in one of these games. It was something Jeff Vanderbeek spoke of in the past, so I'm sure proposals were brought up with through those channels. I don't know if Josh Harris got involved at any point, but I'd like to think he would have pursued it as well. With rivalries against two of the biggest markets in America, surely the networks and the league would buy off on the Devils if it meant getting the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers back outside for another marquee game. Plus, the Devils and Rangers represent one of the fiercest rivalries in hockey, which always makes for a spectacle. So for that alone, I'm very pleased that Sunday's game will be at Yankee Stadium. If any game deserves to be played in the Bronx, then it's a potential battle.
If you're a fan of the Devils or the Rangers, then you know exactly how one team despises the other. All the way back to 1982, Rangers fans have been talking smack about attendance. They've done so ever since. All the way back to June 1994, Rangers have touted their Eastern Conference Finals win and subsequent seven-game series win over Vancouver as the second coming of glory. Playoff series have favored the Rangers 4-2, but the Devils had the most recent success in 2012. Even in the face of the Devils winning three Cups, nearly the total number of Cups the Rangers franchise has won in their existence. Devils fans turned the "Potvin Sucks" chant to the "Rangers Suck" chant and do it at every game. There's always at least one chump in a Rangers jersey at the Rock at every game and of course he (it's usually a he) wants attention. Rangers fans jeer Marty (while praising an overrated fourth liner named Sean Avery). Devils fans do the same but for Henrique, who scored the goal that eliminated them in 2012. Even readers here would tell you that I used to just call them Our Hated Rivals exclusively. There's always heat. Thankfully not to a point where it gets stupid and dangerous. But there's always heat between the fans.
And beyond the fans, there's Lou Lamoriello. This man hates the Rangers. Martin Brodeur (with Damien Cox) wrote in his book, Beyond the Crease, that Lou hates that team. As Derek Zona once pointed out, Lou's first action as a general manager was to undercut the Rangers. It wasn't a huge deal but it was definitely a message sent from day one. I can't imagine that after all of the games, stories, and so forth, that he hates them any less. Sure, he may be polite enough in public but in private, I'm sure he revels in every victory against the blueshirts.
Even when the Devils and Rangers weren't so good, that rivalry persisted due to that kind of heat. Through those early days when the Devils were awful and that glorious 1997 - 2001 period where the Devils went unbeaten in 23 games against them. Recent years have seen both teams be competitive, which has led to some rather enjoyable games. From a neutral's standpoint, Sunday's game will give them what they want from a skill and emotional standpoint. Perfect for broadcasting.
On top of all of that, what goes on in Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon will be rather important in the short term. The Metropolitan Division behind Pittsburgh has been one giant rock fight. The Rangers are in a playoff position but the difference between second and seventh was as little as five points. The Rangers, losers of their last two, need to keep ahead of the rest of the pack in second place. The Devils, who have been fighting up all season long, could use this win to apply more pressure. Both teams have every reason to play for the win.
Going back to pride over the practical, the Rangers should be especially up for this one. They have lost all three of their other games to the Devils. They lost 4-0 to the Devils, who were utterly winless at the time. Their one trip to the Rock and it turned into the Devils' first win of the season. In November, the Devils went into Rangerstown. In a tight affair, Dainius Zubrus pounded in a loose puck off a block for a late goal. It held up as the winning goal, a 3-2 loss in front of their fans. In December, the Devils returned to Rangerstown and were winless in three. Another close game complete with a last-gasp desperation equalizer by the Rangers with the extra skater. But in overtime, captain Ryan Callahan decided to high stick Andy Greene, the foul drew blood, and a four minute power play ensued. It took far less than four minutes for Eric Gelinas to decide the game with The Truth. 4-3 OT loss at MSG. That's 0-2-1. There's no way they can win the season series. But winning the quasi-road game at Yankees Stadium would go a long way to help their own cause and save plenty of face in this season's version of the rivalry. The amount of bragging rights for this one is huge. And if the Devils come away with the win, it's a series sweep right on national television.
I'll be heading to this game. Win or lose, it's going to be an experience. Perhaps an awful one. Perhaps an amazing one. That's part of what makes sports amazing to me. Any given game could be a heartbreaker, a nailbiter, or a blowout. And it's on a far larger stage than usual. This game matters because of the standings, the season series, and the setting. But the fact that both fanbases and teams want to take each other down a peg makes it just perfect. It's big enough for Yankee Stadium and then some. It's a testament to the rivalry.
Now let's hope the Devils simply smash Our Hated Rivals. At the end of the day, that's what all of us want anyway.