Friday, February 24, 2012

Shades of my eight-year-old past cropping up again

The first hockey game I ever saw was on Feb. 12, 1994 when I was up far later than an eight-year-old should be and I happened upon a replay of a 4-3 overtime win by the New York Rangers over the Ottawa Senators. Two weeks later it happened again. I happened upon a game between the Rangers and Stars around 1 a.m. and I slowly got sucked in. See, my hockey knowledge was pretty rudimentary at the time. The one thing I remember most clearly is that my understanding of a "power play" was completely off, and I actually thought the running clock was a countdown until the power play started, rather than ended.

The things you learn with age.

Even though Rangers games were more readily available on TV when I was young -- the Devils were on Sports Channel, which was on a higher cable tier at the time. Regardless, I became a Devils fan for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, though I assume most of it has to do with the poster of the 1992-93 team roster that I grew up with in my room. Of course, I've covered this all before. The reason I bring it up now is because in 1994, the Rangers and Devils wound up with the two best records in the Eastern Conference -- and the League as it were -- before the two faced off in an Eastern Conference Final that I still consider the best playoff series I've ever seen in any sport (the 2001 World Series comes close) even if my team lost.

That was the last time the Rangers and Devils finished one and two in the conference standings -- and the last time they've ever been one and two since in general -- until now. See there is still a quarter of the NHL season left to be played, but the Devils have been among the hottest teams in the League since the All-Star Break and the Rangers have been among the hottest teams in the League all season long, and so here we are. The Rangers have the most points in the League and they're the only team in the East as of this morning with more points than the Devils.

So does this mean we're destined for a repeat of 1994?

I have a hard time suggesting that, of course. There is plenty of time left for both teams to shuffle around in the standings -- though for the Rangers it is certainly less likely -- but there might be a bigger, more significant event of note here for both of these teams. Geography has always tied them together, and for the Devils, life in the Rangers' shadow has always been a constant. Even with three championships in the last 17 years compared to the Rangers winning one in the last 70, it has been the Blueshirts that were the glamor franchise in the New York metropolitan area.

This was still the case even in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Rangers missed the postseason for seven consecutive seasons and the Devils did not lose to them for a stretch of more than four years in the regular season. At that time, while the Rangers were mediocre, the hate was still there because so many characters were still involved on both sides from the Conference Final in 1994. In no uncertain terms, that was a pivotal moment in the history of the rivalry that could have swung the pendulum to New Jersey, particularly considering the fortunes the two franchises had after that moment.

As more players moved on and retired from both teams over the years however, the rivalry grew somewhat less impassioned, however. The Devils finally got the strike they, and particularly Martin Brodeur, had always hoped for when they beat the Rangers in the playoffs for the first time in 2006 -- though that run was cut short a round later by the eventual-champion Hurricanes. But by the then the attention was not as dramatic, nor the outcome of the series terribly surprising. The two franchises met again in the postseason in 2008, but despite some controversial arguing between Brodeur and Sean Avery, the intensity was somewhat tepid then, too.

But here is a chance to have the magic of 1994 back again 18 years later. Not only are both New Jersey and New York playing as if they're the best of the best right now, but they have played each other close all season. The Devils have beaten the Rangers in two of three games this season, but only one of those was decided by more than one goal and additionally, one of the Devils' two wins was in a shootout -- a veritable coin flip. They play each other closely, and this could all be a sign not that we're necessarily in for another epic postseason series, but perhaps just that the rivalry is about to reach a heightened level of intensity once again.

I don't want an exact repeat of 1994 of course. After all, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup that season. That isn't good for anybody. But when these two teams are both playing at a high level -- and they both hate each other -- that's good for everybody. Whether or not this rivalry can start to live up to its promise again we'll find out soon. The Devils and Rangers play twice in the next 10 days. If those are two more tight contests either split or both won by New Jersey, then the rivalry will be real again. I can only hope that will be the case, both for the sake of my team's season and for the sake of the game itself. After all, there's nothing like a great rivalry, particularly between two teams separated by just a few miles and a river.

It's an excitement that can remind me of why I love the game of hockey, and why 1994 made me fall so hard for the game. I can't wait to feel like a child again.

No comments:

Post a Comment