Great rivalry enters a new chapter

Whatever side you’re on, there’s nothing better than when both the Rangers and Devils are good at the same time. Finally, that’s the case as we enter night two of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

There have been times during the unique Hudson Rivalry where one side was front and center. In the early 2000s, it was all Devils with the franchise adding two more Stanley Cups to their first ever championship in 1995.

The names Brodeur, Daneyko, Elias Niedermayer, Stevens, Arnott, Sykora, Brylin, Gomez, Madden, Holik, Lemieux, McKay, Langenbrunner, Mogilny, Gionta, Rafalski, Pandolfo, White and Albelin all are etched in Devils lore. They honored the 2002-03 Stanley Cup team earlier this year, commemorating the 20th Anniversary.

That win wouldn’t have been possible without unlikely playoff heroes Grant Marshall and Jeff Friesen. In that order since it was Marshall’s backhand pass that allowed Friesen to stun Ottawa with the series winner in Game Seven of a memorable Eastern Conference Final. The same can be echoed for Mike Rupp, who’s the trivia answer to the Stanley Cup winner versus Anaheim.

The postseason sometimes makes heroes of players you wouldn’t pick out of a hat. The 93-94 Rangers were chalk full of stars. While Messier, Leetch, Graves, and Richter get most of the credit, there’s no Stanley Cup without Stephane Matteau. A name that’s probably led to many bleeps on the Jersey side of the Hudson. His two overtime winners, including the memorable series clincher in double overtime to win an unbelievable Eastern Conference Final, remain a huge memory for the Manhattan side. He’ll never have to buy another drink in the Big Apple.

That championship team remains the last one to deliver a Cup to the city. So, when they honored them for the 25-year reunion a few years ago, I had chills. The building sounded like what it used to be. One thing about history. The diehards never forget. So, whether it’s the four retired numbers up in the rafters at MSG or a gritty member like Tikkanen, Beukeboom, Wells, MacTavish, or Noonan, we remember what that team represented.

They don’t break the 54-year drought without the Messier drop pass for that Kovalev rocket by Brodeur to swing Game Six at the old Brendan Byrne Arena in The Meadowlands. There’s no championship without the smart defensive work and contribution of Larmer. A player I’ve continued to push for the Hall Of Fame. He and Mogilny not being in is a joke.

You had your savvy vets like Lowe, who had been there and done it with Messier and even Graves in Edmonton. Ditto for Beukeboom. They added MacTavish and Anderson from the Oilers for that run. The running joke has always been that that team was the New York Oilers. However, without homegrown stars like Kovalev, Nemchinov, Richter, and Zubov, there’s no fourth Stanley Cup.

They also sacrificed future stars. Tony Amonte, Doug Weight, and Todd Marchant to win that year. Key players Darren Turcotte and James Patrick went in a three-team deal that landed Steve Larmer from Chicago and Nick Kypreos from Hartford. What about the late Alexander Karpovtsev stepping up that postseason? Or Doug Lidster. Even Greg Gilbert, Joey Kocur, and Eddie Olczyk were a part of it.

To win a championship in hockey, you need everyone. Now, it’s even harder. With the divisional format, it leads to spicier match-ups. You have the Leafs and Lightning in a first round rematch starting tonight. Rangers/Devils wouldn’t be happening without that format. We’d get Rangers and Leafs instead. The Devils would’ve drawn the Bolts.

Unlike the last time the bitter rivals met in 2012, there’s no Brodeur or Lundqvist. The only holdover is Chris Kreider. He debuted that postseason after winning a national title with Boston College. So, he should have an extra incentive to win this series. Being on the winning side matters. Especially in the Battle of Hudson.

As Devils contributor Hasan noted, this seventh installment will feel like an eternity. It’ll be exciting, nerve-racking, and cause anxiety. That’s what makes it special. It matters so much to the fans in the stands and those watching on TV. The war of words can be exchanged between the younger generation. We’re past that. Let them have their fun. Sometimes, you can bite off more than you can chew. That’s why I’m more reflective. I’ll enjoy the first round series for what it is. A battle between two very good hockey teams chasing the same thing.

Now, it’s about Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Timo Meier, Dougie Hamilton, Vitek Vanecek, Tomas Tatar, Ondrej Palat, Miles Wood, Mike McLeod, Dawson Mercer on the Devils’ side. It’s Mika Zibanejad, Kreider, Patrick Kane, Vincent Trocheck, Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Igor Shesterkin on the Rangers’ side.

The thing is, we don’t know who’s going to be the x-factor. Which defensive pair will fare better when matched up? Ryan Graves and John Marino, or K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba. That should be a huge key to who advances to face the winner between the similarly matched Hurricanes and Islanders. Especially if last night was any indication.

I’ve been pretty consistent in emphasizing the importance of the 21+ Kid Line of Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko. All homegrown former first round picks. The cohesive trio was vital to the Rangers’ postseason success a year ago. Their uncanny ability to get pucks in deep, cycle, and contribute made a difference.

For the Devils that could be the BMW Line. Centered by face-off master Mike McLeod, who plays with Miles Wood and Nathan Bastian, they play with the edge needed to succeed during a series. They like to forecheck and create offense off the wall. Similar to the Chytil line. But with a bit more grit. The Rangers must be aware of Wood, who likes to drive the net. He likes to get dirty.

What about other players? The Devils have Jonas Siegenthaler teamed back up with the dangerous Hamilton. Damon Severson is on the third pair with Kevin Bahl. He’s capable of finding offense. The Rangers will count on Braden Schneider to provide more physicality. Veteran Niko Mikkola will team up on the third pair.

Lindy Ruff has options if Bahl struggles. Brendan Smith could get in against his former team. He did play in last year’s second round series for the Hurricanes. He is a gritty type who knows how to play. Would Ruff give Luke Hughes a look? That depends on how the series plays out.

Gerard Gallant can count on the checking line. The straightforward approach of Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, and Tyler Motte provides him with a real fourth line. They all are capable of contributing while killing penalties. Goodrow usually steps it up this time of year. He’s won before. Motte has played well recently. Keep an eye on him.

Who will be the hero? Is it a matter of Shesterkin making the big saves to get the better of the inexperienced Vanecek? What if Vanecek gives up a couple of bad ones? Does Ruff insert the promising Akira Schmid, who seems more comfortable in that role than Mackenzie Blackwood? We’ll wait and see what happens.

It’s sure to be fun. Try to enjoy it. These series don’t happen too often. In the 90s, we were spoiled. We got three. Even when Lundqvist was battling Brodeur, the Rangers and Devils met three more times between 2006 and 2012. The sting of that last series still lingers. The name Henrique carries the same thoughts for the Rangers’ side that Matteau has for the Devils’ side. At least they didn’t win the Cup. Not so fast. We lost to the Kings, too.

All of the scenarios are just that. The puck drops in Newark soon. Embrace it.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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