For the family of hockey blogs at SB Nation, this week’s theme is Rivalry Week. It is also next week’s theme. It could be called Rivalry Fortnight but that is beside the point. Many of the sites on the hockey sub-section of the network are writing about their team’s rivals. This is a New Jersey Devils blog and so there are only two legitimate options. This week is about the primary one. The one you likely hate the most. The one that any reader who has read the site for even a little bit knows who I hate the most. The one opponent whose games always mean just a bit more regardless of the stakes. In three words: Our Hated Rivals. For the uninitiated that is the New York Rangers.
As a long time fan of the Devils, I am a long time fan of the Rangers falling at the hands of the Devils. I came of age as a fan during the mid 1990s, witnessing the hell that was the end of the Devils’ 1994 playoff run and enduring the constant taunting and jeering that came with it. Even to this day, MSG Networks probably still has plans to lionize the last time Our Hated Rivals won a championship. The season series, the constant beefs between the fans (I am not innocent), and that playoff series secured the Rangers as enemies in my mind. Things would get better in the rivalry. The Devils won their first championship in 1995, the Rangers became the model of overspending and underdelivering, and the Devils basically owned them for most of the first half of the 2000s. Some fans would suggest that the rivalry would’ve been better if New York was better and more competitive. I disagree. I loved every night that the Devils stomped all over Our Hated Rivals. I wish it would continue. It did not.
In 2007, the Devils were moving to then-newly built Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The first game was on October 27, 2007. While they lost, the building was fantastic. It still is a great place to catch a game and I hope to see some of you, the People Who Matter, there when games return to Newark and fans are allowed to attend. Anyway, the 2007-08 Devils were definitely a quality team. They earned 99 points with a record of 46-29-7. Martin Brodeur was aging like the finest of wines and a 23-year old Zach Parise began to emerge as the team’s top forward. However, they had a bogey team. An opponent who had their number. The worst possible opponent to have that claim: Our Hated Rivals.
Back then, the NHL schedule had teams play divisional opponents eight times in the season. After several seasons of dumping them, it was the Devils’ turn to be picked on. The Devils went 1-4-3 against Our Hated Rivals in 2007-08. The lone win was in the season ender on my birthday, April 6, 2008, at the Rock. The Devils won 3-2 through a shootout wherein they blew a 2-0 lead to the likes of Chris Drury and Jaromir Jagr. The Devils were not done with Our Hated Rivals as they drew them in the first round of the playoffs. New Jersey struggled to beat Henrik Lundqvist in the regular season and continued to do so in the first round. They were eliminated in five games with the lone win coming in Game 3, a 4-3 OT win thanks to John Madden. That game was played at the World’s Most Overrated Arena. In other words, the Devils hosted Our Hated Rivals seven times in 2007-08 and beat them only once and that was through a shootout.
Making matters worse was The Rock itself. One of its best features is its proximity to Penn Station in Newark, which has multiple train lines that go to Newark International Airport and Penn Station in Manhattan. This meant the arena gets its fair share of visiting fans - especially from New York City. Additionally, despite the Devils’ ticket prices being expensive then and now, they were still cheaper than ones in Manhattan. All together, this meant that the stands were half blue for every game between the Devils and Our Hated Rivals. Every goal scored by the scrubs in Blueshirts was cheered almost as loudly as the ones by the Devils. The home ice did not feel like home and that persisted as the visitors kept taking points away from New Jersey. The series ender in Game 5 of the first round in 2008 may have well taken place in MSG. It sucked.
And, I hate to write this, but the Rangers were not a bad team anymore. They finished behind the Devils in the standings in 2007-08 but they were on the rise. Lundqvist began to make his mark as the second best Cup-less goaltender of his generation. Jaromir Jagr was not a beloved figure but had the reputation of not being what he used to be but still being very good. Scott Gomez was earning the booing of the Devils fans as he set up plenty of goals. Rangers fans were bigging up Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal as their future - and they turned out to be correct. And then there was the one who took a lot more attention than he ever deserved. A lot of these rivalry games featured one player getting the spotlight: World class jackass and known bigot (example as per Georges Laraque’s appearance on the Cam & Strick Podcast which may have some bad words from Cam Janssen), Sean Avery. He was not a player like Claude Lemieux where opponents hated him but his teams loved him. No, he was hated everywhere except in New York. Fitting he would be a Ranger. In this era of hockey, it was incredibly easy to dislike Avery. You just needed to let him exist and he would give you a reason.
That was the situation back then. The Rangers only sucked inherently but not objectively; the Devils were dominated in 2007-08 and were eliminated by them in the playoffs; and the fresh new arena was being treated like a second home to some of their fans. As a Devils fan, I yearned for seeing the Devils beat the Rangers straight up. No shootouts. No closeness. I wanted a good, old-fashioned beat down of a win with a massive score like so many from earlier in the decade. Something so definitive to cherish. Something to begin writing the wrongs I have detailed in the previous paragraphs. I would get it in the first half of the 2008-09 season.
This season is not well-remembered by Devils fans primarily because of how it ended. I am not going to remind you about the terrible end of the playoffs. Or how Brent Sutter quit to be closer to his family, which magically became not a problem when he signed a deal to coach Calgary. Yet, this was a very, very, very good season for the Devils. Parise broke out in a huge way and put up 45 goals and 47 assists. He was earning MVP chants nightly at the Rock. Thirty-year olds such as Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Brian Gionta all put up very productive seasons. Paul Martin became one of the more underrated first-pairing defensemen in the NHL. A young Travis Zajac emerged with a twenty-goal campaign. The Devils went 51-27-4 and remarkably did so without Martin Brodeur for much of the season as he suffered his first significant injury. A lot was put on the backs of Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes, but they performed admirably. Relevant to this post, this would be the team to serve some justice for the fans yearning for a clear-cut, straight-up, no-question victory over Our Hated Rivals. After suffering another ‘L’ at the Rock on November 12, 2008, revenge would be coming on December 12, 2008.
The Devils went into this game with three straight wins, with their most recent one being a 4-1 win against Pittsburgh. Back then, I felt good about the match-up. Ahead of the game, Bryce Salvador was returning to the blueline, Mike Rupp was brought in for the fourth line to be with David Clarkson and Bobby Holik, and Scott Clemmensen was going to get the start. I remember the Rock being about half-and-half with loudmouth Ranger fans engaging with loudmouth Devils fans. I did not and can not condone bad behavior, but like all of the Devils and right-thinking people in the world, I wanted that night to be the night where the Rangers and their fans would have to shut their mouths for one evening. I wanted a win.
The game itself did not disappoint. The atmosphere was tense with each side going back and forth. This Friday night game in mid-December may have well been a playoff game with the intensity on the ice. Both sides did not want to be seen as soft - to a fault. Holik took the game’s first penalty with an interference call. This did yield Madden winning a draw, Salvador poking it ahead for Madden to torch a defender and play Jay Pandolfo into space. The Goal Scoring Machine - I called him that ironically - beat Lundqvist clean for a shorthanded goal. It caused me and thousands of Devils fans to leap out of my seat. Pandolfo not only scored but he scored shorthanded against the one team we all hate. I loved it.
The nastiness of the game took up plenty of time after the goal. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner slashed a Ranger. Aaron Voros ended that power play with a tripping call. Brian Rolston restored it with a hooking call. The Devils survived it. Fisticuffs ensued later on. Rupp fought Colton Orr. Right off a draw minutes later, Voros and Clarkson scrapped. The hits were bigger than usual and the jawjacking was going more often. The lack of love subsided for a rush up ice by Our Hated Rivals. It was led by Nikolai Zherdev, moved shortly to Gomez, and then Gomez sent it across the slot to a cutting Markus Naslund. The puck hit off Naslund’s skate and in. A review was performed and it was confirmed to be a good goal as it was an incidental deflection and not a kick-in. I was crushed and the Rangers fans at the Rock erupted. Fortunately, Naslund would do the Devils a solid thirty-seconds later and take a hooking minor. Early on that power play, Sutter iced five forwards, the Devils broke out, Parise led the entry, Elias recovered the puck, and Elias sent it across to Travis Zajac. The young center potted it in past Lundqvist’s blindside to make it 2-1 and restore the cheering for the fans in red.
The second period should have been the time for the Devils to bury the Rangers. While I was not fully aware of concepts like Corsi, Fenwick, score effects, and such, the Devils tipped the rink in their favor for most of the second period. They hammered Lundqvist with shots and several of them started going in. One minute into the second period, Parise found Zajac open in the left circle. Zajac took a shot, Lundqvist stopped it, and Zajac put in his own rebound past a sprawled out False King of New York for his second of the game. This yielded a fight between Zajac and Girardi on the next shift that I think took Zajac out of the game with an injury. He did not finish this one. After a non-conversion for a slashing call on Dmitri Kalinin, the next set of beef was between Rupp and Dubinsky. Rupp was given two for high-sticking and the duo got two each for roughing. The Devils’ PK not only killed the high-sticking call but scored again. Parise took a puck that Paul Mara could not handle, rushed up ice, drop passed it back to Gionta, Gionta hammered the left post, and Lundqvist fell back trying to cover the puck. He did not and so defenseman Johnny Oduya, who was rushing down the middle, found the puck and poked it in. A second shorthanded goal and it was 4-1. About four minutes later, Dainius Zubrus is denied in front by Lundqvist. The rebound was kicked wide and recovered by Gionta, who flung a pass back to Zubrus. Big Z tucked in a low backhander through Lundqvist’s legs to make it 5-1. With each score, I was increasingly ecstatic. This is what I wanted. This is what I thought all Devils fans wanted. The Devils were peppering Our Hated Rivals with pucks and built up a four-goal lead against a goalie who wished he had the accolades of Martin Brodeur despite his fanbase pumping his tires. This was going to be great. The Devils could cruise to a victory.
Our Hated Rivals had other ideas. As a fan, it is easy to let doubt creep in the moment something goes wrong. In hockey, it is not always immediate and apparent when the wheels are falling off. Sometimes it is quick, but other times, it is a slower, gradual decline that by the time you realize it, it is almost too late. Zherdev roofed a puck or had it deflected to the top shelf within the final five minutes of the second period. 5-2. The visiting fans reacted but not too loudly. I was not so bothered by it. Within the final two minutes, the Rangers buzzed around the net and an attempt by Zherdev led to Scott Gomez getting enough space in front to get two chances at the loose puck. The second attempt went in and it is 5-3 and my levels of concern were rising along with the Rangers fans getting loud again. Our Hated Rivals nearly got a last-minute goal but Girardi thankfully hit the post on a long slapshot. The Devils were up 5-1 earlier in this period and were a few inches from being just up 5-4 by intermission. The joy was replaced by agony.
The third period began and Our Hated Rivals decided it was their turn to dominate the run of play. Paul Mara hammered in a long shot after a faceoff win by Chris Drury. The puck trickled through Clemmensen and the score became 5-4. The Rangers fans were back to being as loud and boistrious and joyful as they were in those other games at the Rock wherein their squad won. The anxiety levels among the Devils fans, such as myself, rose considerably. Where was the response? Where was the goalie change? Should there be one? Who is going to provide an answer? Will Lundqvist see a shot on net? The Rangers kept coming at the Devils. The Devils were bending but not breaking, which is not exactly confidence inducing in a sport where one bad bounce or play can be costly. The fear was another Rangers goal - and it would happen. The Devils’ third line was out-worked down low. Zherdev found Callahan open at the bottom of the left circle. Callahan took a shot and it got through Clemmensen despite the goalie hugging the post. It was 5-5.
With less than nine minutes left to play, Our Hated Rivals came back from four goals down. This also meant the Devils blew a four goal lead. That is terrible on its own. Even fans who joined up for this past season unfortunately know what that feels like. It is horrible. That it was to Our Hated Rivals, a team the Devils have yet to beat outside of a shootout at the Rock and even that only happened once, and a team whose arena has become too good to the franchise’s biggest rivals made it feel a thousand times worse.
The questions and worries and anger and frustration and sadness mounted. Internally, my thoughts raced: Why did not they not put in Weekes? Why did they not start Weekes? Why couldn’t Madden foul someone? Why couldn’t Colin White knock down Gomez earlier? How come they have yet to push back against this team? Will anyone on this Devils team step up?
The last one was answered. And it was from the most perfect person on the team to do so. The franchise scoring leader against Our Hated Rivals and easily the best forward in team history: Patrik Elias.
Back then, Elias primarily skated on a line with Gionta and Zubrus. On the very next shift after Callahan’s goal, this line was sent out. The puck was sent back to the Rangers’ end for one of the first times in a long time. Gionta jumped into the endboards to deny a rim-around by the defense. The puck rebounded to the slot. Zubrus was the first to get it. Despite me and hundreds wanting him to blast it from the slot, he sent it across to Elias. Elias one-timed it perfectly past Lundqvist’s right. The goalie never had a chance. Eleven seconds after Callahan tied it up, Elias restored the lead for the Devils. It was 6-5 and the Devils fans like me who had their heads in their hands and groaning “not again” were beyond elated. Elias was a real hero.
The line was not done and neither were the Devils. As Kevin Clarke announced Elias’ goal, Elias denied a pass in the neutral zone. He moved it up to Zubrus, who went down the right side. With four Rangers looking at the Lithuanian Freight Train, he saw the Rochester Rocket in a big pocket of space across the middle of the ice. he threaded a great pass to put Gionta one-on-one with Lundqvist. Gionta went in close, cut to his left, and scored as he tumbled over Lundqvist’s right pad, He made it 7-5, the Rock went electric, and fans like me started believing that the Devils were going to win this one after all.
New Jersey did not pepper Lundqvist with a lot of shots in the third. In fact, they only put four on him. That is almost never good. I write almost because it is acceptable if you score on three of those. Which is what happened two minutes later. Zajac was out of the game - I did not know why at the time - and so Holik was skating with Langenbrunner and Parise. Two Pops and a Z does not have a nice ring to it. Anyway, Parise kept a puck moving past a double-team. Holik reversed it back to Parise behind the Ranger net. He saw the captain come down the middle. Pass, shot, score, 8-5 New Jersey. The one-timer might as well come with an exclamation point and a nail. New York was done after that one.
Half of the arena thought so too as many spent the final five minutes heading to the exits. Many of whom looked like they witnessed a death. The jeering stopped. The bragging about what happened in the 2008 playoffs or last season at the Rock or what happened in November or even what happened in 1994 (this is the Rangers fanbase, all roads go back to 1994 for them) stopped. Even if it was just for the evening, it stopped. There would be no response from the supporters of Our Hated Rivals. And there was no response from the players either. Sure, there was a fight between Langenbrunner and Callahan. Sure, there was a beef that ended with matching minors for Orr and Martin. But I and the Devils fans at the Rock and those watching along around the world experienced the ecstasy of victory. The Devils finally beat Our Hated Rivals at the Rock in regulation. A clear-cut, straight-up, no-question victory. More than that, the Devils smacked the Rangers in the mouth. It felt so, so, so, so, so good to experience that live. So much so that I was so excited and keyed up after arriving home to write what I then thought was a long, mostly-praise worthy recap on this very site. Since this is essentially a re-recap, here are some usual links:
The Opposition Opinion: Who cares.
The Game Highlights: While NHL.com does not have it, their Youtube account does have this extended highlight video from the game. Check it out in “glorious” 360p.
This first regulation win ended a slide against Our Hated Rivals at the Rock. Obviously, that night would not last as the biggest night at the Rock between the two teams. Game 6 in 2012 deservedly holds that crown and will likely hold it for an incredibly long time. It is still a cherished memory that I have as a fan of this team. Following wins at the Rock against them are always good wins to witness even if they do not rise to what that night in December 2008 meant. I recognize that as much as I will not forget this first clear-cut win over Our Hated Rivals at the Rock, another night and another game with another result and different circumstances may mean as much to fans who witnessed their first Devils-Rangers win or their first one in Newark. I like to think that while the team has declined dramatically over the last decade - which I painstakingly documented in this series - we all appreciate it when the Devils beat Our Hated Rivals. That is how a rivalry works and how it persists and grows.
In the long history between the two organizations, December 12, 2008 was a stand out night in favor of the Devils. I, for one, am fortunate to have seen it live. I hope it will be decades before I forget it and if I do, I can remember this site so I can remind myself. May we continue to see further victories at the Rock in the future that put Our Hated Rivals in their rightful place - behind the New Jersey Devils.
Now I turn to you. Were you at this game and, if so, do you remember it fondly? What stood out to you the most? Elias’ goal after Callahan’s? Gionta’s huge insurance goal? Pandolfo scoring a shorthanded goal to start it all? What was your favorite Devils-Rangers game at The Rock outside of the 2012 Playoffs? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.