The first week of preseason games is over for the New Jersey Devils. They may be exhibition games meant to get people prepared for the upcoming season but there were many highlights in the Devils’ five games. Jack Hughes showed why he’s The Big Deal. P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, and Nikita Gusev made their debuts to rave reactions. Taylor Hall and Fabian Zetterlund both played in their first games since injury. Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood looked good. Mikhail Maltsev posterized Brendan Smith and Alexandar Georgiev. And, of course, the Devils beat on Our Hated Rivals twice.
I made a big point in both of those games that you always want to see your favorite team beat a rival. It does not matter if it is a preseason game or an exhibition contest or that the game does not actually count for anything. You want to win those games. This was proven by the two games last week and . To that end, I have some thoughts to share about the state of the Devils’ rivalries.
The biggest one is obviously with the New York Rangers. There has been talk about how the rivalry should be better since both teams have a bright future. That is nonsense. It has always been a rivalry. It does not matter if the Devils are glorious and the Rangers are doormats for the entire division. Or if both teams were heading straight for the lottery drawing in a season, such as in last season. There is always more heat in those games than most. As much as hockey is a business and a profession, the rivalry game can make one forget that and fall into wanting one side to win and other side to lose.
Just take the preseason game on Friday. In a preseason game, the Devils went up 3-0 on the Rangers. In the process of their beating, the Rangers became frustrated. That is normal in hockey, sports, and in life. But the Rangers did something unique. They did not just try to pick fights and take players down through fouls. No. There were multiple attempts of fights. The key here is “attempts.” I have not seen more than one attempt at dropping the gloves where the other guy just goes “nah” and plays on in a game. If it happens, it is usually only once. But the Devils denied the Rangers a scrap three times and yet the Rangers still kept being mad instead of trying to play the game. The one attempt that did lead to an actual fight was when Ryan Lindgren goaded Wayne Simmonds into it. Despite Simmonds making Lindgren pay for it, the two players were lipping off to each other to the penalty box and after they entered the penalty box. This was Simmonds’ first game as a Devil. This was the first of four attempted scraps by the Rangers. This was just a preseason game that counts for nothing. Why did it all happen? Simply: because this a serious rivalry.
The fans are generally the ones who keep the rivalry fires burning. In the northern and central New Jersey, in particular, there is a mix of Devils and Rangers fans living and working in the area. And the banter is always there. I know this to be true. I am a Devils fan from central New Jersey that now lives in northern New Jersey. This is what I have encountered as well. And to that end I always enjoy it when the Devils beat the New York Rangers regardless of the circumstances. I want to see the Devils win those games no matter what. I am gleeful when the Devils hand the blueshirts another ‘L.’ I stand by a belief that no matter how good their roster or record may be, the New York Rangers inherently suck. I tend to call them Our Hated Rivals - because that is exactly what they are. I am not shy about sharing those feelings. I indeed keep the fire burning just by feeling good that the Rangers suffered another defeat. And in this past week, the Devils downed a Rangers team on their home rink that featured their top forwards and a Rangers team at the Rock that featured an aging and declining False King of New York - and seeing both wins felt fantastic.
See, amid all of that I still made a dig at the Rangers. And that was a dig I’ve made before and will make again. A dig that even yesterday I received an email from a salty Ranger fan complaining about it. All after just an exhibition game that means nothing at all in the bigger picture! That is a result of the rivalry. (Aside: So what does that make Henrique knocking out the Rangers in OT in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012? Bragging rights that will last a very long time and Henrique has a special place in the hearts of many Devils fans for the rest of their lives among other things.) No matter how good the Devils are in 2019-20 and how bad the Rangers hopefully will be in 2019-20, this rivalry will never stop meaning something to either side.
The Devils have one other rivalry that comes even close to this one. The Philadelphia Flyers. Or as I like to call them, the Second Rate Rivals. Simmonds is intimately familiar with this one as he has been a Flyer for quite some time. He knows those games also get heated and not just because Philadelphia has believed in “making it look mean” since the 1970s. Philly has been on the end of some infamous playoff eliminations thanks to the Devils. The Devils dispatched them in 1995 on their way to their first Stanley Cup. One of the most infamous hits of all time was Scott Stevens on an unaware Eric Lindros in a critical Game 7 that the Devils won and went on to win their second Stanley Cup. And in 2012, the Devils waxed the Flyers silly in four straight games to win a five-game series with a lasting image of David Clarkson riding the crossbar past a bewildered Ilya Bryzgalov. Despite the money and attention and some of the talent, the Devils have done what the Flyers could not since the mid-1970s and they are bitter about it. So it goes.
The two fanbases do not like each other very much. They represent more of a divide than the Devils-Rangers fanbases. Whereas a significant part of the Devils fanbase is in northern and central New Jersey and therefore is near New York, the Philadelphia market controls the southern part of the state and eastern Pennsylvania. It is a big city but pales in comparison to New York City that is about 100 miles up north. Despite the history in Philadelphia, it is in the shadow of a much more important and culturally relevant place not that far away. And that has permeated throughout the media markets. There is a difference in the feeling between the northern and southern parts of New Jersey. And that has flowed down to sporting interests. It is not an coincidence that the Flyers and Rangers also despise each other for similar reasons.
And that is a key reason why I have dubbed them the Second Rate Rivals. The Flyers are constantly in a state of being behind. They want to be the meanest, baddest franchise in all of the land - but they come up short. They want to be seen as a big deal and get all of these national stages to do it - but they are not seen as one. They want to puff their chests about passionate supportive their fans are (I will begrudgingly concede this to a degree) - but they take it too far and end up as punchlines for it. Even though the Devils-Flyers rivalry is big enough to warrant a Wikipedia page - but they will never overtake the Devils-Rangers as the biggest rivalry for the Devils. With the Devils having tiered their prices for matchups, the Flyers games have consistently been in the second highest tier - second only to the Rangers games. They are truly second rate.
This leads to another question: Do the Devils have a third rival? My answer is no. You may find a good team or a team that seemingly has the Devils’ number as a rival. But that may end if/when the opponent becomes worse or the Devils triumph over them. A rivalry needs to be something that can last no matter how good either team is. I can safely speak for most Devils fans that we would all like the Devils to win whenever they can. But it is those games against the Rangers and Flyers that we really want them to win.
What about the New York Islanders, who are also in close proximity to the Devils and have played each other loads of times since 1982? The Isles have been so awful for the better part of the last 20 years that any residual effects from their 1980s dominance have long been past. They have flirted recently with being good. While this had made some of their fans a little more obnoxious, there has never been anything that has made the two sides just plain dislike each other. Certainly not on the ice. And not even among fans. A big reason for the latter is their common hatred of the New York Rangers. Can you really dislike someone who also thinks the Rangers suck and hope they suck forever? I do not think so.
What about the Pittsburgh Penguins, who feature Sidney Crosby and have also been playing the Devils loads of times in 1982? While the games draw - Pittsburgh has been quite good shortly after Crosby came onto the scene - there is again not a lot of animosity. You may have found Pens fans to be a bit annoying when they were winning Cups, but that has went away as the fans that have stuck around learned that the Pens were not going to be dominant forever. The Devils may have had the Pens in their division but they have not seen each other in the postseason since 2001 - and the Devils won that series without much drama. In recent seasons, the Devils have had some fun games against the Penguins. So it’s not really a squad to hate. Plus, similar to the Isles fans, the Penguins fans really hate Flyers fans. Can you really dislike someone who also thinks the Flyers are orange pylons of garbage? I do not think so.
What about the Carolina Hurricanes, authors of two of the biggest playoff defeats in the 2000s? I witnessed 2009 live. As angry as I was at that, I am well past it. So are most fans. It was a decade ago. And it is not like the Canes have went on to do great things since then or do anything to warrant any hate. Carolina has become a difficult opponent to play against, especially in 5-on-5 situations. Given that they finally got puck luck and goaltending to go their way and make the postseason just last season, there was no reason to have any animosity towards them for much of the 2010s. Or even now.
What about the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, and Los Angeles Kings? Older fans may have more a beef with the Caps. The Bruins seem to rub a lot of people the wrong way with their cycling-ways. The Kings defeated the Devils in 2012 for the Stanley Cup. But let’s stop being polite and start getting real. It is not the teams that people dislike. It is a specific player. Tom Wilson, Brad Marchand, and Ilya Kovalchuk respectively. Wilson and Marchand have long earned their reputations with every dirty hit they keep on throwing. Kovalchuk quit on the Devils. All three deserve to be booed every time they touch a puck in Newark. But it is just those three. No one is really riled up at the others on those teams. Nobody is spitting angry verbals from the stands because, say, Patrice Bergeron did a thing. Since a rivalry is between teams, it will not count. Put it this way: When Wilson, Marchand, and Kovalchuk all move on - and they eventually will - any ill will towards those teams will dissipate.
You may have a personal reason to dislike a third team more than most. I get it. I hear you. I may even understand it and agree with you as to why. It is entirely possible that there can be a third rivalry for the Devils forming in the future. Maybe the seeds are being sewn right now. Even then, this supposed third rivalry for the Devils would just pale in comparison to the Devils-Rangers and Devils-Flyers rivalries. Those two are such big deals and have been for decades. Any new rivalry or any argument for one that has kind of been there would still fall short of the history and heightened emotions of those two. I know I was not the only Devil fan pleased that the Devils prevailed over the Rangers in preseason games. Any other opponent and it is what it is, but for those two teams - winning the matchup just matters more. That is the high bar set for rivalry with the New Jersey Devils. I do not think it will be matched by a third team, and certainly not any time soon.
I could be wrong though. I would like to know your thoughts. Who is the bigger rival in your view? Do you have a third team that you see as a rival and why? In the bigger picture, will the Devils ever have a third rival and what would it take to make it happen? Should they have a third rival or are the two they have enough? Please let me know your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ rivals (other than that they suck) in the comments. Thank you for reading.