It’s been 18 years since Stephane Matteau forever etched his name into hockey history with a wraparound goal that launched the New York Rangers-New Jersey Devils rivalry well beyond just a common border war.
Matteau ended Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals with an unlikely goal in double overtime, beating goalie Martin Brodeur and the Devils and sending the Rangers toward the final step of ending a 54 year Stanley Cup curse.
The intensity and animosity has only grown over the past two decades. The Devils recovered well from the disappointment of losing such an important series to their so called “big brothers,’ and went on to win the Stanley Cup three times between 1995 and 2003, with another finals loss mixed in.
The Rangers haven’t come close to matching that run of success. This is New York’s first appearance in the conference finals since 1997, a 4-1 series loss to Philadelphia.
Most of the names have changed from that landmark series back in 1994. Brodeur is the only player from either team to still be in the NHL, and he is still the cornerstone of the New Jersey club that will face the Rangers in this year’s East finals that open Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
No, there won’t be any “Matt-eau, Matt-eau, Matt-eau’ calls in this one. But that doesn’t mean a similar situation won’t occur in another dramatic Game 7, and a name such as “Kovy, Kovy’ in a Devils win or “Cally, Cally’ for the Rangers will instantly become as big a part of the rivalry lore.
The names have certainly changed, but the intensity hasn’t between these Atlantic Division rivals. During the regular season, the teams split six games. The most recent meeting on March 19 was the most memorable as it began with the clubs’ enforcers on the ice and led to three fights right off the opening faceoff.
A repeat of that is unlikely, but feistiness and nastiness is almost a guarantee between these defensive minded teams that value each and every goal, and know that any one could be the difference between a win and a loss.
New York coach John Tortorella made it clear Saturday night after the Rangers secured their place in the conference finals that he wasn’t going to be sucked into any hoopla surrounding this juicy matchup.
“You guys can make your stories about the Devils-Rangers, and I know you’re going to do it in the next couple weeks. Don’t include me in it,’ Tortorella said. “We are going to worry about the New York Rangers.’
Which is plenty.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who drew the ire of Tortorella because of the lineup he started back in March, left practice early on Sunday because he wasn’t feeling well. But he was healthy enough to provide his thoughts on a conference call with reporters.
He said he watched the Rangers-Capitals finale, and did so without a rooting interest. Only seven points separated the top seeded Rangers from the sixth seeded Devils in the regular season.
“For me, it was a pick your poison type situation,’ the first year Devils coach said. “I really think that there’s a reason that there’s only four teams left, and they’re all very good.
“I am excited it’s the Rangers. Anybody that coaches or plays wants to play your main rival in this type of situation. I don’t think it gets any better than that. We’re very excited that we’ll get an opportunity at the best team in the Eastern Conference. They have the most points, and we’re going to throw our best at them and see if it’s good enough.’
Close, tight games seem to be in store, just as it was in 1994 when Matteau’s goal gave the Rangers a 2-1 victory. Three of those seven games went to double overtime back then, and two of those were won off Matteau’s stick. The other, Game 1, was won with a Stephane Richer goal for New Jersey at Madison Square Garden.
All told, that 1994 series featured 27 periods of hockey, two suspensions, and a promise from New York captain Mark Messier that turned into “The Guarantee’ of a Game 6 win. He delivered on it, the Rangers rallied from a 3-2 series deficit and a 2-0 hole in Game 6 itself, and went on to win the Stanley Cup two weeks later.
The Rangers returned to practice on Sunday, albeit an optional one, just hours after they knocked out the Washington Capitals with a 2-1 win in Game 7. Sound familiar?
New York is quite used to going the distance. The Rangers did it in each of the final two rounds in 1994 and they have done it again in the first two rounds this year, taking out Ottawa to set up the meeting with Washington. While they embrace the history of their 1994 Game 7 success, they also know that no team pushed to the limit in each of the first two rounds has gone on to capture the Cup.
That sparks the age old rest vs. rust debate. Yes, the Rangers have played the maximum 14 games in the first two rounds, but the Devils will have had five days off before facing the Rangers since they eliminated Philadelphia in five games.
Mike Rupp has been on both sides of this battle. He began his career with the Devils in the 2002-03 season, and scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks. After stops in Phoenix and Columbus, Rupp returned to New Jersey for three more seasons.
He just finished his first with the Rangers, and still remembers clearly what it was like to face them on the ice. New York has won four of its five playoff matchups against New Jersey, including the most recent meeting in 2008 when the Rangers won in five games.
The key for the Rangers to win this series, will be that they need to overcome not scoring 5 on 5. They will have a very difficult time scoring and winning games if they do not find a way to slow down the Devils aggressive forecheck.
The Devils vs Philadelphia in the Semifinals displayed the very aggressive forecheck and we all saw that the Flyers had no space or time to generate any offense.
If the Devils can do exactly what they did so effectively against the Flyers, they will have success over the New York Rangers.
I know I talked up the Rangers for most of this article, but that’s about all they will get out of me. If it weren’t for the Capitals star players choking in game 7, we would be witnessing a Capitals vs Devils series.
SERIES PREDICTION: New Jersey Devils to win the series in 6 games.
Pucking Hockey is a registered trademark company. Pucking Hockey is a registered copyright company. All Rights Reserved.