Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hockey Like It Ought To Be

Some of you might recall a few weeks ago when I mentioned that the Devils were good, and the Rangers were good, and they just might be good together. The point of it was that it seemed as if both teams had a decent shot of getting to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in a long time and that the table might have been set for a potential rematch of the 1994 East Finals, which has probably had a more profound impact on me as a sports fan than any other single event. When the postseason field was finally laid out, the Devils were the sixth seed, the Rangers were the first seed, and it seemed short of a few upsets the odds of the Devils and Rangers meeting in the third round were pretty much nil as a result of re-seeding. Then the upsets happened, another upset happened in the second round, and suddenly here we are with Game 1 between New York and New Jersey having been played last night at Madison Square Garden.

Suddenly it feels like 1994 again.

I have said many, many times that the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals between New Jersey and New York was the greatest postseason series I've ever seen (though the 2001 World Series comes close), and there are several reasons why. I could go through a list of the three double overtime games, the two games tied in the final minute to force the extra periods, the drama of Game 7, the natural rivalry, the fact that it was the two best teams in the League that year, the Rangers' Curse of 1940, Mark Messier's guarantee -- all of it. I could go into greater detail on what was good and what was amazing, but if you read here with any frequency, you've probably seen it hashed out a few thousand other times and if not Wikipedia can take care of it for you. Plain and simple, this series promised everything, it had everything, and as an eight-year-old getting into professional hockey for the first time, it left a lasting impression.

Now imagine if my team had actually won the damn thing.

Yes, I am a Devils fan and perhaps that is why much of this sticks in my craw, and perhaps why I thirst for revenge. For 18 years New Jersey has been, by a fairly significant margin, the most successful team in the New York metropolitan area, if not the most successful team in the NHL not named the Detroit Red Wings. While the Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1994 and reached another Conference Finals in 1997, the Blueshirts went nearly nine calendar years without a playoff game after that despite having players like Wayne Gretzky and Jaromir Jagr on the roster. The Devils on the other hand, have won eight division titles, four conference championships and three Stanley Cups while missing the playoffs just once since 1994.

And yet the Devils remain in the Rangers' shadow. Always have. Probably always will.

Such is the lot in life of being a Devils fan, loving a franchise that never seems to get the respect it deserves from its incompetent rival from across the river for no particular reason aside from ignorance. When New York won the Cup in 1994, the NHL was suddenly hotter than the NBA. When the Devils won they were mocked for having their Cup celebration in a parking lot. When the Devils won three championships on a system that prized sitting back in the neutral zone and counter attacking to take advantage of scoring chances produced by the other team's mistakes it was the harbinger of the dead puck era and the worst thing to happen to hockey. When New York instituted the same slog of a defensive style to grab the East's best record this year, the team had managed to solve the wild nature of the speed-driven post-lockout era and rein in an out of control game.

Put simply, the Devils never have had the same amount of respect as the Rangers for about 1,000 different reasons, but now that the chess pieces are all in place and the two teams are facing off for the East crown for the first time in 18 years there is a chance to finally avenge that moment when it all started. For people of my generation that love this game -- and likely those older than us -- 1994 was the defining serendipidous moment of the Devils-Rangers rivalry; the moment when the franchises crossed paths at their best with the most at stake that they could ever possibly be playing for, and the big bad Rangers ruled the day.

In the minds of most fans in the New York area, the fact that the Devils have been a model franchise on the ice for most of the two decades since then bears little weight. They had their chance to knock off older brother at the peak of his powers and they let it slip through their fingers. Pay no mind to the face that New Jersey swept New York out of the playoffs in 2006 when the Rangers ended their nine-year hiatus or that at one point the Devils didn't lose to the Rangers for a span of 23 games over four years. It all came down to 1994. That was the chance.

Finally, however, the Devils and Rangers are meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals again and that means that this is not just a redux of the series that made me love the game, but a chance to get a measure of peace back. I will grant that it did not get off to exactly the start I was looking for as the Rangers took Game 1, 3-0, while I was stuck following it second-by-second on twitter on my cell phone because I had already agreed to go to last night's Mets game. The morons on my subway ride home didn't seem to realize that the series still has, potentially, six games left in it and that the longer it goes the more that favors the Devils who are rested unlike the Rangers, who have played a grind of 14 games in their first two rounds, a set of circumstances that has never been on the resume of a Stanley Cup winner due to the exhaustion it causes. Furthermore, the game was far closer than the score would indicate, the Devils' and their potent forecheck dominated long stretches of the action, and apparently, Martin Brodeur can still move like he did when he was young if he needs to. And when he was young, coincidentally, he was playing the Rangers in 1994.

I have a hard time imagining Brodeur doesn't remember that and sense his own personal chance for vindication as he takes one last stab at the Rangers before riding off into the sunset at age 40. But more than anything else, I'm sure he is perfectly ready to not lose hope. And neither am I. After all, a one-game deficit is pretty minimal when only one game has been played in the series. New York still needs to win three more times in six games to oust New Jersey, which is only a slightly easier task than New Jersey needing to beat New York four times in the next six. More than that, losing the first game, as I found out with some research after the game, is really a pretty nebulous indicator as far as the Devils are concerned, be it against the Rangers or not.

In fact, of the 20 times in their history that the Devils have lost the first game of a postseason series, they've ended up winning the series eight of those times, including notable series like Round 2 against Pittsburgh in 1995 and Round 2 against Philadelphia this season. Eight is not a majority of 20, but 40% is hardly a success rate to turn your nose up at. Perhaps even more noteworthy? Of the five times the Devils and Rangers have met in the playoffs, the team that won Game 1 has gone 3-2 in terms of winning the series.

Plenty of time remains even if the kids across from me on the 7 train last night who "smell a sweep" don't like to believe it. And if the Devils come back to win the series it will be a just moment for many of those who still remember and are haunted by 1994.

Over the next two weeks there will be a plethora of allusions to, news stories about and video clips from that series of 1994 plastered all across the internet, newspapers and television broadcasts. That's fine. At this point, much as it bothers me, I am more or less accepting of watching Stephane Matteau screaming after beating a young Marty on a wraparound. This will not bother me over the course of this series. This series is not a reminder of New Jersey's subjugation. It's an opportunity. This is the Devils' opportunity to prove superiority and avenge the moment that I became enamored with the game of hockey. Despite already losing the first game of the series, I have high hopes that they can seize it.

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