Mar. 08, 2017
Revisiting A Rivalry: NJ Devils Versus NY Rangers
The New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers share a rivalry which has been cultivated over a period of decades into one of the best in all of professional hockey. The two teams have clashed in huge games with massive implications, in classic Stanley Cup Playoff series, and in Yankee Stadium in the NHL Stadium Series event a few years ago.
The franchises seemed bound for this type of rivalry when the Devils moved to New Jersey in 1982. In the 1980s the Devils were not a very good team overall as the organization struggled to adapt to their new home. The Rangers, conversely, were very good overall in the 1980s making the playoffs consistently.
My first time attending a Devils versus Rangers game was at that time, the mid-80s and I remember it being a very rowdy crowd, lots of passionate fans packed into the old Meadowlands Arena together, and the game on the ice had an edge to it as well. It was as if both teams turned it up a notch and battled for pucks in corners with extra force.
I have been to a select number of games in the rivalry through the years, but have seen the Devils play other teams with far more frequency, because the tickets for the games against the Rangers are typically more expensive or harder to get. I have attended games in this regional rivalry with my friends and their parents, or with a group of friends, some of whom are Rangers fans, and others were New Jersey Devils fans. Those games made for interesting experiences for sure.
In my experience, as with many hockey fans, I eagerly await the announcement of the new schedule prior to the start of the season. I always scan the schedule every year and circle the dates that the Devils play the Rangers. I will usually have a debate with a Rangers fan over whether the scheduling of those games favors one team or another. I generally dislike when they play each other too early in a season, and due to the realignment of the NHL and the changes to the schedule, the two teams meet less frequently than in previous years. I recall one season, back maybe seven or eight years ago, when they met twice in the last week of the season in early April and I did not like that concept either.
I attended the most recent game in this classic NHL rivalry with my wife last Saturday evening at Prudential Center. The train ride into Newark was filled with fans of both teams in their respective jerseys giving playful verbal jabs at each other. This particular game was no different than others played previously, although the Rangers currently sit in second place, and the Devils sit currently in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division. It was still Rangers versus Devils, it was still a huge game.
The walk through Newark Penn Station and through the streets downtown in New Jersey’s largest city, was a sea of blue and red shirts all trying to drown out the chants or cheers from the other side. I love the spirited nature of the rivalry, the intensity of the fans, it is what makes sports great. It embodies what it means to be a fan. The ubiquitous chant of either “Let’s Go Rangers!” or “Let’s Go Devils!” was met with booing or jeers from the fans of the opposite side.
The long lines for security to get into the arena, an unfortunate reality in the uncertain times in which we live, were not present when I was a child attending games with my Dad, or my friends and their parents. It sparked a great chant from a Rangers fan: “Let’s go security!”, which was met with laughter from fans of both teams.
One Rangers fan commented to me while we waited to enter the arena, “that he may not like the Devils but they sure did get that arena done right”. When I entered the Prudential Center, a.k.a. “The Rock” for the first time in a long time because of the other obligations in my life keeping me from getting up to games, I am always reminded of how lucky I am to have that arena to visit.
We worked our way through the concourse with fellow fans darting in every direction to frantically find their seats or meet up with friends or relatives. I used to take all of this for granted because I used to get to games somewhat routinely, and now I took it all in. The lines and the promotional giveaways on the concourse, and the little kids in Devils gear, reminding me of myself when I was their age. It is a rite of passage, a look back at my life, because so much of it was being a part of being a fan of this team.
My wife spent the whole time prior to the game observing and being entertained by the fans, she loves to see the passion and the commitment of people of all ages coming together around a shared bond. She also observed the amount of groups which were split between the two teams: two guys who are best buddies and one is wearing Devils red, the other Rangers blue. We also called them “split couples”, where two people in a committed relationship or marriage where split between the two teams.
We had two “split couples” in our section when we got to our seats. I asked the one couple how it works and the guy told me: “we won’t be friends for the next few hours”. My wife got great seats for us for my Christmas gift, and the National Anthem was stirring and always fills me with pride to be an American.
The two teams started out slow, feeling each other out, like two heavyweight boxers. The Rangers needed the win to keep pace with the top tier teams in the East. The Devils needed the win because they came into the game about eight points out of the last wild card spot in the playoff chase. A win for New Jersey also would provide a much needed morale and momentum boost for a team that has unfortunately played with a great deal of inconsistency this season.
The amount of blue and red jerseys in the crowd all around me was striking. It brought back memories of sitting in the upper level of the Meadowlands Arena and watching these two teams play in the days of Messier, Graves, Daneyko, and Brodeur. I thought about going to a game and having to find the time to finish a high school paper or project.
I thought about different jobs I have worked, and different friends who have come with me to games and now live elsewhere. Then a rocket shot being saved by Cory Schneider brought me back to the game right in front of me. My wife is a real trooper, she watches the Devils with me a lot, and I know she is not particularly interested some nights in doing so.
I work an evening and weekend job in retail in addition to my work as a writer, and so on the one or two nights I will have off in a week, she shares me very often with the Devils. She will say something to the effect of that being the life of a wife married to a guy who writes about sports.
My wife told me, as the guys skated for a loose puck, that she felt like she knew the Devils personally she had heard their names so often, or heard my stories about them. She asked me questions periodically about strategy, why would a guy make a certain decision with the puck, or about the rules, which are admittedly a little more complicated than other sports.
The Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead and the Devils could get nothing going, they looked sloppy passing the puck and their skating was not as precise as I have seen them play this season. I explained to my wife, and the guy sitting next to me agreed, that I had seen this particular edition of the Devils do this before. They looked flat and I was unsure why that was the case.
A goal on a wraparound type play cut the deficit to 2-1 but the Devils gave glimpses of their potential but never seemed like they were firing on all cylinders.
The Devils came out for the third period and even I, the eternal optimist for this team, felt a bit skeptical that they would turn it around. I figured it was an off night for the team. The Devils came out blazing, completing passes, and skating with speed as well as precision. They scored to tie the game which reignited the crowd at “The Rock”.
Then, the Rangers committed a penalty and the Devils went on the power play and scored right away to take an unlikely 3-2 lead! The Devils fans went nuts and were ribbing the Rangers fans, who were so deflated that they had blown a two goal lead to their rivals from across the river.
The Rangers eventually would gather themselves and change the momentum by skating and holding the zone against the Devils, who were exhausted from chasing them, and could not clear the zone to get a line change. The Rangers scored again to tie the game at 3-3 and we headed to overtime.
I had not been to an overtime game in about five years. I remember going with my friend who is a huge Pittsburgh Penguins fan to a game at Prudential Center where the Devils lost in a shootout, which was really exciting. I actually talked about that game with a friend of mine that we bumped into on the train coming in to this game earlier that day.
In the overtime session, Kyle Palmieri had a couple of chances to win it and the Rangers countered with a long pass and the decisive goal to win the game 4-3. It was an exciting, fast paced, toe-to-toe type game for the final minutes of regulation and overtime. I was disappointed that New Jersey lost, but it was such an exciting game that it was very cool to be there and be a part of it.
We left the arena and entered the rainy night moving swiftly with a small group of other fans back to the train station. We boarded a pretty subdued train next to a man who was with his young daughter. He recognized me because he is a frequent customer at my retail job. We began talking and he told me that it was his daughter’s first time seeing the Rangers and Devils play each other, to which I smiled at the young girl and said, “Let me tell you a story…”as the train rolled down the tracks toward home.
We ended the night having a late and light dinner at one of our favorite places. My wife and I recalled moments from the game and I told stories about games from my past, memories of people that are no longer with us, or that we have not seen in a long time. We had a few laughs and I was so thankful for the gift my wife gave to us, the gift of spending time together, which with our hectic lives has been reduced significantly.
Another chapter was added to the Devils rivalry with the Rangers which my wife and I will remember again someday as we head to another game in the future. Another memory was added for my wife and I to share, which is best result I could have ever asked for on a rainy Saturday night in February.