Tuesday, May 22, 2012

These Teams Really Don't Like Each Other. And That's A Good Thing.

Rivalries are good. They are the lifeblood of many sports in that they stir the emotions of teams naturally pitted against each other either by competition or geography, and when they happen they create an excitement unlike anything else. Often these rivalries are what pull young viewers into the game and in many cases they can define how we've come to view or love a sport. That was the case with me in 1994 when my Devils fell to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and while those two teams continued a blood feud over the Hudson River over the next few seasons -- and it has had brief rebirths like it did in the first round in 2006 and 2008 -- a funny thing happened for most of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Rangers weren't very good.

While the Devils and Rangers have a strong rivalry it is not a particularly old one, and much of it is derived from the determination of Devils fans to gain acceptance and legitimacy from beneath the shadow of Gotham as a whole as well as the Blueshirts, something that, even with three championships in a nine-year span, hasn't yet happened because with the most important things on the line, the Devils haven't topped New York. Part of the reason for that, however, is that the Rangers were so mediocre for nearly a decade that New Jersey never got the chance. And with that mutual competition the threat of the Rangers and the disdain toward them, at least for me, faded accordingly.

Instead the team that earned my hatred was the Philadelphia Flyers, a group that, while it didn't win a Stanley Cup -- and still hasn't since 1975 -- was a regular road block for the Devils, competing with them for the division title on a near annual basis and twice meeting New Jersey in the Eastern Conference Finals. Philadelphia's typical brutishness and tendency to get in New Jersey's way made them a much stronger rival in my mind than the Rangers, who were typically playing golf by the time tensions were ratcheting higher up.

Last night was a sign that that's all changed now. And thank goodness for that.

It was no real secret that the teams that met in the mid-90s hated one another, and while Sean Avery did his best to ignite the fires of hatred when the two teams met in the first round in 2008, some of that anger had faded over time. This series seems to be bringing it back in a pretty big way, and it's about time the action on the ice reflected just how much the two fan bases dislike the other's team. There were moments when the two teams showed flashes of this during the regular season, most notably when the Rangers and Devils dropped the gloves in three different places as soon as the game started, but that didn't have the feel of real hatred with real consequences. Those moments were merely cases of two wannabe musclemen flexing their biceps for no one in particular.

This was different. These were real battles built on real tension boiling over with high stakes at plate. There was nothing staged about what happened on the ice in Newark last night. This was two teams whose players, fans and coaches simply just don't like one another. The sense was there before the game that something might happen with just the right spark, but talk is just talk until you see it organically manifest itself before your eyes, and Mike Rupp's shove of Brodeur last night -- ironic given Rupp's special place in Devils history -- was just the right spark to light up the powder keg.

Tensions had been building for most of the night prior to this blowup which peaked with John Tortorella and Peter DeBoer screaming at each other over NBC rinkside analyst Pierre McGuire (how badly do you wish McGuire hadn't muted his mic?). One noteworthy instance saw New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk spearing Rangers captain Ryan Callahan in front of the net after Callahan took a swipe at Kovalchuk's head after the whistle. But it should be noted that while this series has had its share of post-whistle shoving and near scraps, Adam Henrique and Dan Girardi had a full-on drop of the gloves earlier in the night, a decided rarity in the playoffs where roster spots that can go to valuable checkers or supplemental scorers as opposed to one-dimensional toughs. Few are the times that late postseason rounds feature full on fights and even rarer among players of great significance. The only real example that can come to mind is when Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier tangoed in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. If you noticed, Tampa Bay's coach that year make an appearance at the end of the clip, and it's not a particular surprise.

So why is this good, really? Isn't violence wrong?

Well, yes. It is. And fighting, in general, is not something I particularly like in hockey now, though I used to enjoy it. This is good because when the tensions boil over, the passion of the players goes up to a level they didn't know was there before. That means harder, quicker, impassioned, desperate hockey. And that's better hockey. When one team doesn't just want to win, but also wants to make sure it sees the other team lose, it tries that much harder. That means a better product on the ice that will leave the fans of each team more emotionally connected and the casual fan that much more entertained.

Barring something truly outlandish and disastrous, there is no real downside to any of this. This was a series that was advertised as a battle between two teams that don't like each other and want to make sure the other one knows it. For anyone who watched these teams on a regular basis, it wasn't a certainty that we were going to get that. After all, the Devils had just topped their other main rival by not reacting to the between-the-whistle jostling that knocks an unfocused team off its game. But now we're getting that. And after the Devils tied the series at 2-2 last night, leaving us with essentially a best of three, this series has been set up for a taut, dramatic and, above all, great finish. These are tempers that will not have calmed down when the puck drops for Game 5 at MSG Wednesday night, and if Game 4 is any indication, great, skillful, entertaining hockey will follow.

If you're a fan of either team or the game in general, you can't really ask for more.

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