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The Puck Drop Line Brawl: Looking back at the Devils-Rangers Fight from March 19, 2012

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In the last regular season game of a big season for the Devils/Rangers rivalry (2012) there was an all out brawl on the ice. Three skaters from each team dropped the gloves. How did this happen? And what did it mean for the rivalry?

New Jersey Devils v New York Rangers Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

The Hudson River Rivalry is littered with highly consequential moments in which each team staked their claim like “The Guarantee” or “Matteau, Matteau, Matteau” or “Henrique, It’s Over!” These are the moments that matter most in the battle for supremacy. But as much as these moments capture the actual historical import of the moments in this tug-o-war, there’s something that you don’t really get from watching those highlights...

These teams HATE each other.

One of the reasons that Devils-Rangers games are always a must-watch it often feels like a playoff atmosphere no matter what time of the season they meet. And the contempt is so contagious that it infects the entire team the moment they don the sweater. In a conflict littered with names like Brodeur, Messier, Stevens, Gretzky, etc. the moments that make the rivalry feel most like a rivalry are paradoxically often involving people that are otherwise anonymous members of team lore. In the year 2020, it’s often easy to forget the fires in which this hatred was forged, because it involves a somewhat bloodthirsty mindset largely absent from the modern game. In 2012, the practice of fighting had already begun its steep and inexorable decline, but rivalries still hadn’t received the memo. Perhaps no moment embodies this more than March 19, 2012 when the two teams met for the 6th and final time that season, and three simultaneous fights broke out the moment the puck dropped to start the game.

Who was involved in this fight? What was the backstory that caused it? What was the fallout? These are the questions we’ll look into in today’s edition of the “look back” at the rivalry series.

The Players

Before we get into exactly what went down, let’s introduce our characters.

The Devils

Ryan Carter was the center of the opening line, and is, in some ways, the main character of the story for reasons we’ll get into later. The DeBoer Devils, like many of our franchise’s teams, liked to open games with a checking line to set the tone. This was the first of 3 seasons where Carter would have this role as a 4th line center. While he wasn’t established as a Devil that mattered at all at the time of this fight, the ensuing postseason, he would go on to join forces with Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier to create the “CBGB” line. This line had the best even-strength goal differential on the team in the 7-game first round series against the Panthers who had waived Carter earlier that season — outperforming the likes of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Patrik Elias. That magical stint notwithstanding, Carter was a career depth center, often flirting with making an NHL roster.

Cam Janssen had a notorious career as a brawler, almost exclusively. Over his 9-season, 336-game career, he spent 1610 total minutes (4:47 per game) on the ice, and 774 minutes in the penalty box — that is the lowest ratio of ice time to penalty time among the 6 players involved in this fight, and probably one of the lowest in the modern NHL. He never scored more than 4 points in a season despite playing over half the season 6 separate times. His job was to be on the ice just long enough to annoy whoever he was supposed to annoy, or fight whoever would accept the challenge, and then get off. In fact, this was actually Janssen’s second fight etched into Devils lore. The first one was almost exactly 2 years prior when he was a St. Louis Blue and fought, then-Devil, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond for just shy of 3 full, ridiculous minutes.

Eric Boulton rounds out the Devils fighters, here. He’s nestled somewhere between Carter and Janssen in terms of usefulness in real hockey. He played 2 more minutes a game than Janssen and periodically threatened the double-digit point threshold. But, you may remember the season Boulton was having here, as covered by this blog, as the worst season from a Devils skater in recent memory. In fact, I constructed a naive GAR model and Boulton’s 2011-12 season was one of the 10 worst in NHL history dating back to the 80s. He’s a fitting end to the Devils cast in that he is the 6th worst skater of the analytics era in value per minute (2000+ minutes) — fairly unimportant while his gloves are on.

So we have a depth forward and two goons starting the game on one side of the ice. How would the Rags decide to match up?

The Rangers

Stu Bickel was, at this point, a 25-year-old defender in his first of 3 seasons in the NHL. His played the equivalent of less than one full NHL season, appearing in 76 games across 2 seasons with the Rangers and one 9-game stint with the Wild. He averaged about 3 PIMs per game and never recorded a goal in the NHL. That Bickel is a defender is an issue we’ll return to in a second, but suffice to say he’s just as, if not more useless, than latter two the Devils combatants.

Brandon Prust is comparably a stud virtue of the fact that he was actually a regular starter at some point. Prust was coming off a career year in 2010-11 in which he put up 29 points including 5 shorthanded goals (3rd in the NHL) and garnered 14 Selke points (4 votes) for his efforts. Prust was an aggressive player and, unlike some of the other characters in this story, not useless — he played in over 50 postseason games between the Rangers and the Canadiens over which he recorded 10 points and averaged over 13 minutes per game.

Michael Rupp will be familiar to most Devils fans. As a rookie, Rupp scored the GWG in a spectacular 3-point performance in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, securing the trophy for the Devils for the 3rd time in less than a decade. While his name is carved into the annals of Devils history, he simply wasn’t good enough over his career to retain a steady role as anything more than a depth forward. He averaged 8:42 of ice time per game and never cleared the 20-point mark in any one season.

So, you get the idea. These guys are either goons (Janssen, Boulton, Bickel), agitators (Prust), or simply not very good (Carter, Rupp); but they were all regulars — each of them played in over half the games in 2012. Below is the career minutes these skaters spent on the ice vs in the box. Carter is the only one whose ratio got to the double digits, and, in fact is the only one who has a ratio over 6. If you don’t know how to perceive that, note that, among skaters who played in at least half the games in 2020, only 1 player sustained a ratio under 6 ... IN THE ENTIRE NHL.

It was John Hayden (5.4:1).

So of these 6 forwards, FOUR of them would have had the lowest TOI:PIM ratio in the league in 2020. So why are these 6 not-really-hockey-players — including 1 defender — being trotted out as the starting forward lines in a rivalry game in a really important March matchup?

The Context

The 41-27-5 Devils team and the 45-20-7 Rangers were among the best in the NHL. According to NaturalStatTrick, the Rangers had the 2nd best record in the league at the time, and the Devils held the 10th. Despite their inferior record, the Devils held the edge on the season series 3-2, with the most recent win being a 4-1 handling of the Rags earlier this month. This would be the last regular season meeting between the two teams, and therefore the last match before their eventual ECF meeting.

That is the hockey context of the meeting. But, as I said at the beginning of the article, this moment wasn’t really about hockey. This was about the pure passion of the Devils-Rangers rivalry. From 2005-2008 the Devils and Rangers played against each other 8 times a year. From 2009-2012 that was lowered to 6. It is now often just 4. So, when these teams met on March 19th 2012, it was the last time a regular season meeting would ever take place with 5 games if intra-season history between these rosters. How much difference could a 5th or 6th game make? Well, when the 6th game turns out to be the boiling point, it turns out it can matter quite a bit...

The Devils were not a big fighting team. According to Hockey Fights In the 76 games against teams other than the Rangers, the Devils fought just 28 times — about once every three games. Yet, in the 6 games versus Our Hated Rivals, we dropped the gloves 11(!) times. In the 5 meetings leading up to this matchup, 4 of them included multiple fights.

In fact, this wasn’t even the first puck drop brawl of the season for these players! Rupp and Janssen dropped gloves at the opening faceoff in the first meeting of the year in December. Then, Boulton and Prust joined the fun in the 2-fight puck-drop battle in in February during the 3rd meeting of the season. And in the previous matchup — the 5th of the season — Ryan Carter punched Brandon Dubinsky so hard in the face he developed sinus pressure that kept him benched for a few games and fled the division at the end of the year. Okay, I made up that last part ... but he got him real good.

So, when DeBoer started the game with the two wingers that had been in the last puck drop fight, plus the guy that did Dubinsky’s face like Herc did Hades less than two weeks ago, people familiar with the history may understandably perceive that as a bit of a challenge.

Among those was Rangers coach, John Torterella — himself, an irascible character — who could be seen cursing off DeBoer between the benches pre-game. According to a Lundqvist radio interview, “Tortorella was not happy when he saw who the Devils were starting” and that “he changed the Rangers starters in the locker room before the game”. Tortorella takes it a move even further than DeBoer. He puts Dubinsky on the blueline, and takes the biggest player left on their roster and puts him in the faceoff dot against Carter. That guy was Stu Bickel, a defeceman, who has likely never taken a faceoff before in a professional game and likely never would after. DeBoer, for his part, would say post-game that “he either has short-term memory loss or is a hypocrite, one or the other” — referring to the fact that Torts also started goons in the previous games. If it wasn’t immediately obvious from who the Devils put on the ice that a brawl was coming, Bickel’s presence locked it in for certain. Carter would go on later to say about the opening lineups:

The way the last couple of games started, and then the starting lineups, I didn’t not expect it. I don’t know what (the Bickel) move was about. Dubinsky was on the ice, but he moved back. … At that point, I definitely knew what was up. I looked at Dubinsky, and Bickel’s right there. We had a couple of words, and you knew what was going on after that.

And then, it happened...

The Brawl

1) Ryan Carter vs Stu Bickel

2) Cam Janssen vs Brandon Prust

3) Eric Boulton vs Michael Rupp

The Fallout

Despite dominating most of his fight, Carter is swung to the ice and cuts his face open pretty good — requiring 4 stitches. Team captain, Bryce Salvador rushed onto the ice when he saw the blood and was given a 10-minute game misconduct for excessive empathy. Boulton would lose his fight with Rupp and somehow manage to squeeze in 2 more penalties in the first half of the game, the 2nd of which resulted in a PP goal. Janssen and Prust would settle for a draw and go on to play negligible minutes of little consequence. The 3 Devils skaters would spend a combined 19 minutes in the penalty box and 18:10 on the ice. Ultimately, the Devils would lose 2-4 — making it 3 consecutive times that the puck-drop fight winner went on to win the game — and Dubinsky would receive that 2nd star while recording a goal and an assist. He didn’t take a shift against Ryan Carter.

The Devils and Carter would have the last laugh, though, as they eliminated the Rangers in 6 games in the Eastern Conference Finals later that year. The only fight in the series was between two of the best players on their respective teams, Ryan McDonagh and Adam HenriqueHenrique won. The Devils leading goal scorer for the series was Ryan Carter who, with the help of his CBGB linemates, potted 3 on 5 shots in only 50 minutes of ice time, including the GWG of Game 5 with only 5 minutes left — he also led the team with a +4 rating in the series.

You won’t see this fight in the story written about the 2012 edition of the rivalry. And perhaps the recent legacy of physical virtiol didn’t impact the series much in the end, nor Carters performance. But it’s hard to imagine that these brawls which sucked in the legitimate players on both teams, enraged the coaches of both teams, and captivated the fans of both teams, did not change the way the series felt. And, in the spirit of clash that dates back to the 80s, for a brief moment, and perhaps the last moment ever, these teams made it feel like 80s hockey again ... for better or worse.

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How do you remember the 2012 season? How do you remember this brawl? Do you feel like it was the end of an era in the rivalry with regards to physicality? Do you remember it as part of the story of the 2012 run?

Leave your thoughts to these questions and anything else on your mind about this topic in the comments below, and, as always, thank you for reading!