Sunday at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, the Rangers bent, didn’t break, and then bounced back in an epic way, scoring six straight goals to defeat the Devils, 7-3 in front of 50,105 raucous fans.
Ever since the Devils franchise moved to New Jersey from Colorado, battles between the Devils and the Rangers had the feel of a “Cold War.” Sunday, the rivalry between the Metropolitan Area foes literally went glacial as the two teams took the ice to a balmy announced 24.9°F.
Several players on each team had the opportunity to play outside in a Winter Classic previously, including Jaromir Jagr two years ago in Philadelphia. However, none played in a stadium with such nostalgia as this one.
“I need GPS,” Jagr said, in awe of the size of the Devils’ dressing room when he walked in for the first time on Saturday.
After a brief delay due to extreme sun glare, the two clubs took the ice close to 1 p.m. for a 1:38 p.m. start.
“It’s the same for both teams, so you’ve got to be professional about it,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “Then once you find out what time the game starts, you go through your normal preparation. That’s what our guys did.”
The Devils got on the right field scoreboard first, when at 5:36 into the opening period, Patrik Elias took an outlet pass from Ryan Clowe, which allowed him to break in alone on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Instead of making a move on the uncertain elements of the outdoor rink, Elias shot from 20-feet out and scored.
“Yeah, it was a tough start to the game,” Lundqvist said. “I think my preparation was not perfect. It changed a couple times. I was asleep when they told me it was a warm-up in 30 minutes. So I felt like I was not really in the right place mentally in the first period. I was fighting it a little bit.”
Less than four minutes later, at 9:07 of the first, Rangers fans were given reason to celebrate as Dominic Moore deposited a rebound off Anton Stralman’s shot from the right point past Martin Brodeur to even the score at 1-1.
The tie wouldn’t last long as Rangers winger Derek Brassard took a tripping penalty at 10:38 and the Devils took advantage, when Elias scored his second of the game from Jagr and Marek Zidlicky at the 11-minute mark.
Moments later, Travis Zajac made the score 3-1, depositing a Jagr feed past Lundqvist at 16:06, and it appeared as if the Devils had opened a comfortable lead. But the Rangers had a different idea and only 52 seconds later, defenseman Marc Staal scored to tighten the contest before each team headed to the warm dressing rooms.
After intermission, which featured the band Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, the Rangers came out flying and evened the game, only 2:48 into the second, on a two-on-one, when Mats Zuccarello fired home a John Moore pass, knotting the game at three.
Then the snow began to fall and the pace of the game slowed — until Zuccarello and Brassard broke free on yet another two-on-one. Brassard fed Zuccarello, who put the puck past Brodeur at 12:44 of the second to give the Rangers their first lead of the game, and what would eventually turn out to be the game-winning goal.
Zuccarello, who had a brilliant game scoring two goals, later reflected on the day.
“You had the first period you had the sun, second some snow, and the third was pretty cold. But it’s a fun experience and something you’re really proud of being a part of too.”
Only 1:09 after Zuccarello had given the Bluehsirts the lead, Carl Hagelin swung a point-shot toward the net, with Brad Richards screening Brodeur. The puck careened off Zidlicky and found its way past the beleaguered Brodeur, to give the Rangers a two-goal lead.
Brodeur would later say: “It was the worst ice I’ve ever played hockey on.”
The Rangers did not quit there, as they continued to take the game to the Devils until the end of the period. With less than a minute to play in the second, Stralman stepped up and delivered an open-ice hit on Devils defenseman Andy Greene, springing the Rangers on a three-on-two break, resulting in a Rick Nash goal with 28.5 left to make it 6-3 heading into the clubhouse after two periods.
The third period began with Brodeur, who gave up six goals on 21 shots, on the bench and Cory Schneider in the crease.
“We didn’t help him (Brodeur) out much,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “At that point, I had a conversation with him and we both agreed. It was actually his comment, that how about give Schneids the experience of a period in this environment.”
Schneider kept the rolling Rangers off the board until just past the mid-way point of the third period when Derek Stepan was hooked by Zajac, setting up a penalty shot for Stepan, 10:06 into the final period. Stepan riffled a wrister past Schneider’s blocker to give the Rangers a 7-3 football-score lead in a baseball ballpark.
“That was pretty nerve-racking,” Stepan said. “I just tried to bring the butterflies down a little bit but it was cool.”
“I had one thing in my head and I wasn’t taking anything out of my head,” Stepan enlightened media members after the game regarding his simple, no-stickhandle gameplan, which helped him light the lamp and become the first NHL player to score a penalty shot goal in an outdoor game.
The Rangers set a regular season outdoor NHL game record with seven goals, besting the previous mark of six established by the Red Wings in the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
With the 7-3 win came an all-important two points, and now the Rangers have to prepare to face the Islanders Wednesday, becoming the first NHL team to play back-to-back outdoor games.