You would be hard-pressed to make a distinction between which rivalry — Rangers-Islanders or Devils-Rangers — has been the most steely keen over the decades.
While the ongoing feud thrashed about between the Blueshirts and Nassaumen came first, the Battle of the Hudson has produced more recent playoff games of import, not the least of which was the 2012 epic that concluded with the Adam Henrique sudden-death explosion that ended the series.
Leading up to last spring’s furious finish were a number of regular-season gems including the match at The Garden on Feb. 22, 2007 that bore all the hallmarks of New York-New Jersey feudin’, fussin’ and a fightin’ that form the basis of rivalries at their best.
In this regard, worth noting is the fact that there have been long-term human hockey foundations with each franchise on both sides of the Big River; namely the general managers, Glen (Slats) Sather and Lou Lamoriello. They both own a bunch of Stanley Cup rings and, despite their fascinatingly contrasting personalities, share the highest respect of their peers.
Sather had bolstered the Rangers a year earlier — in 2005 — with Jaromir Jagr, who nearly won the Hart Trophy in 2005-2006 as the NHL’s most valuable player, but did win the Lester Pearson Award, which is voted on by his fellow NHL players as the league’s top banana. For 2006-2007, Jagr was anointed captain. Slats also unloaded the likes of Petr Sykora, Tom Poti, Martin Rucinsky and Steve Rucchin in 2006. Brendan Shanahan, Matt Cullen and Aaron Ward were the notable additions.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: From the get-go, Jagr proved to be a superstar enigma. His years as a Cup-winner in Pittsburgh along with his enormous talent made him a natural as captain yet he refused the “C” the previous year despite media pressure in some quarters for him to accept same. That he finally changed his mind pleased just about everybody, Jags included.)
Lamoriello added a pair of promising rookies to his lineup — Travis Zajac at center and rushing defenseman Johnny Oduya. Shown the door were veteran playoff hero Grant Marshall and Viktor Kozlov.
For sure, “Contrasts” — which happens to be a real, live tune — also could be the theme of this marvelous example of Rivalry in Rhythm.
Further on the Rangers’ side, the club was skippered by Gentleman Tom Renney, whose intellectual demeanor reminds me of another Canadian celebrity, Alex Trebek, the perennial host of the TV quiz show, “Jeopardy.”
The Devils were piloted by newly-hired Claude Julien, a French-Canadian whose hockey roots can be traced to the Montreal Canadiens organization.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: I liked Julien. In those days, as part of the MSG Network broadcast, I did a regular pre-game “Coach’s Corner” segment with Julien. He invariably was fair and square; down to earth, answering questions with little fuss or fanfare but as honestly as any coach could. I worked with plenty of mentors — Al Arbour, Scotty Bowman, Jacques Lemaire, et. al. — and rank Julien among my favorites. And at that point in the season, he appeared to be pressing all the right buttons. Who knew what obstacles were ahead to derail his Jersey Express? I didn’t.)
No less contrasting were the altitudes of the respective clubs. The Garden Staters were close to the National Hockey League stratosphere. Their 38-17-6 record placed them second in the East only five points away from the top.
It wasn’t that the Rangers were abject disappointments — they were over .500 at 29-26-6 — but the Blueshirts lagged in 11th place, five points out of a playoff spot.
“We can win with the team we’ve got,” Renney insisted, “but I said that 60 games ago.”
Less than three weeks earlier, Sather pulled off one of his all-time fan-favorite deals, shipping Jason Ward to Los Angeles on Feb. 5th for Sean Avery. As if the rivalry needed any more spice — which it did not — it got a large dose of skating Tabasco sauce in Puck’s Bad Boy, Avery.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: Who could have dreamed that in a matter of games Avery would prove to be The Toast of the Town, hockey-wise. His impudence — and not merely his disdain for Martin Brodeur — appealed to Rangerville. A player who hardly caused a ripple of excitement during previous stints in Detroit and Los Angeles became the most popular Blueshirt. He would virtually singlehandedly knock off Atlanta in the first playoff round partly by distracting then Thrashers superstar Ilya Kovalchuk. I covered those games for MSG Network and could not believe how Kovy got suckered into retaliation time and again by Avery.)
Despite their previous 2-1 loss to the Devs at the Meadowlands, the Blueshirts were brimming with confidence at home on Feb. 22 and within two minutes they enjoyed two excellent scoring chances worth one goal. With just over a minute past the opening faceoff, Jagr sent Avery through the ice’s No Man’s Land where he confronted Martin Brodeur, but was thwarted by Mister Goalie. A mere dozen seconds later Marcel Hossa — remember him? — repeated Avery’s move, but beat Marty with a fake followed by a slick backhander.
At 1:28, it was one-zip for the home club with more good news to come in the second period when hustling Petr Prucha beat Brodeur on the power play. If the Devils were daunted by the deficit, it hardly was evident, particularly behind the bench.
“We were playing a good game,” recalled a confident Julien, “even though we were down by two. I believed that we’d be okay if the boys kept at it.”
And they did. Defenseman Brian Rafalski — a thorn in the Rangers’ side ever since his rookie season, 1999-2000 — directed the puck off huge backliner Marek Malik and behind Henrik Lundqvist to halve the Rangers lead. New York fought off several dangerous Devils thrusts until Julien’s fast-rising star Zach Parise — he got the anti-Rangers winner for the Devs in the previous game — tied the count at two in the third, re-directing a pass from his buddy Travis Zajac.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: Parise broke into the NHL as a rookie precisely when Sidney Crosby did for Pittsburgh. We broadcasted that opening Devils-Pengins game over MSG Network and I vividly recall that despite all the furor over Crosby, it was Parise who outplayed Sid in that game. Granted that Sid the Kid would emerge as the league’s new marquee guy, but Parise matured very well for New Jersey in his own right and now has the moolah to prove it.)
“What I liked about this club,” said Julien in retrospect, “is that it never quit.”
That, of course, does not necessarily mean that the non-quitting Devils always would win because on this night the Rangers held fast and forced the match into overtime and then a Shootout. What’s more, the home club struck first and almost had the two-points wrapped up for delivery, thanks to the ubiquitous Czech, Prucha who “beat” Marty with his Shootout shot.
That was the split-second good news for the Rangers, but the bad news instantly followed when the rubber clanged off the crossbar and bounced harmlessly away for a heartbreaking no-goal.
“I ‘gave’ him the crossbar,” clucked Brodeur in the gleeful Devils postgame room, “and he hit it. Hey, it was a great shot and that explains why we don’t want the nets to get bigger.”
The next pulsating move was made by Devils veteran Jamie Langenbrunner in the fourth Shootout slot. Julien’s decision to pluck Jamie out of the roster for this critical move surprised Langenbrunner and about 18,000 onlookers in packed MSG. “I didn’t think I’d be up yet,” Jamie allowed. “Usually I’m seventh or eighth on the pecking order. Maybe it was for the best that I didn’t know.
“The thing is that I saw Henrik get a piece of the puck and I thought that he might just reach it in time and still grab it. But it trickled over the line.” Then, a pause and a smile: “It’s all because of the weight-lifting I do!”
Having been around the NHL for a long enough time, Langenbrunner shook off any goose pimples and cruised in on The King. He fired a stop-able shot that was deflected by Lundqvist’s arm and then continued on its merry way toward the promised ice where it landed over the goal line.
Lundqvist: “I made the save and then the puck went up and down under the crossbar. It’s been like this all season. It’s tough.”
The win gave New Jersey the season series, 5-3, despite some outstanding play by many wearing the Blue Shirt. Even the occasionally harsh Manhattan media sympathized with the Rangers plight. Beat reporter Lynn Zinser, who was covering the game, put it in perspective for Renney & Company:
“It has become a cruel question for the Rangers,” wrote Zinser, “one for which the Devils keep producing a cruel answer; how many different ways can the Rangers lose a heartbreaking game?”
Ironically, events following New Jersey’s victory that night were stunning to say the least. Start with the coaching:
* JULIEN: Although the Devils finished the season with an impressive 49-24-9, 107-point record — second in the Eastern Conference and first in the Atlantic Division — Coach Julien was fired with a mere three games remaining on the regular schedule. Among other explanations, Lamoriello asserted that his team “had to have a better focus” heading for the playoffs.
* RENNEY: After losing that game to the Devils, Coach Tom Terrific put it this way: “We’re better suited to the playoffs than a year ago.” Unlike Julien, Renney finished the campaign and guided his club to a sweep of Atlanta before losing to Buffalo in a six-game second round. With a break here and there, it could have been New York’s series, but the regular season mark of 42-30-10 secured Renney’s job into another campaign.
(THE MAVEN’S COMMENTS: I covered the Devils playoff series win over Tampa Bay and stunning second-round loss to Ottawa. It meant that another coaching change was in order for New Jersey. I also was involved in the Buffalo-New York series. I recall working the studio telecast in Manhattan with Deb Placey when it appeared that the Blueshirts would preserve a third period lead over the Sabres. Then Chris Drury intervened. The Sabres tied and then went on to win and what looked like a possible march to the Stanley Cup Final went up in smoke.)