You have to give this, at least, to the NHL schedule makers: They have a sense of history.
How else to explain the synchronicity of this Eastern Conference final between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, with the final five games lined up on the same dates – 18 years later – as when they met in 1994?
All that’s missing is an appearance by journeyman winger Stéphane Matteau, who potted two double-overtime winners in that now legendary Battle of the Hudson series that ended with a Rangers Game 7 win.
That drama has lived on in these parts mainly because of what came next.
The Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years in the next round, narrowly beating a plucky Vancouver team. The Devils responded with their first Stanley Cup in franchise history a year later.
A rivalry that has always had plenty of heat, given the geography involved, had reached a new level, making it inevitable that nearly every question players fielded heading into Monday’s Game 1 at Madison Square Garden was focused on those times gone by.
“That was probably one of the toughest losses I ever had,” said Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, at 40 the only player from either team left. “But if I didn’t have that loss maybe I wouldn’t have become who I became or even our organization [doesn’t win a year later]
“Sometimes you need to hit the hurdles before you’re able to go over them. That was one of them in ’94.”
The way it played out, the two Cup wins seemed to define these franchises for years.
The big-spending Rangers continued to try to find quick fixes (they had missed the playoffs the year before winning it all) and instead hit a low point in sitting out the postseason seven years in a row starting in 1998.
The Devils, meanwhile, quietly went about their business, winning two more championships as a defensive team in the heart of the Dead Puck Era, cementing GM Lou Lamoriello’s status as a Hall of Famer, and New Jersey as one of the model franchises of the time.
All these years later, however, there are far more differences than similarities between these teams and their former incarnations.
Still defensively sound, the Devils have been one of the highest scoring and best fore-checking teams in these playoffs in averaging three goals a game.
The Rangers have played the role of the safe, defensive squad, one that’s been content to rely on its Vézina calibre netminder to bail it out the way Brodeur did for New Jersey for so many years.
Maybe they’ve switched places?
Or maybe, as Rangers captain Ryan Callahan – who was all of nine years old in 1994 – put it, “you don’t put too much of the past into what’s happening now.”
Brodeur, however, admitted on Sunday to feeling a little nostalgic about it all, recalling his first time in this situation came as a 22-year-old rookie and all that had come since.
A win now, to put those ancient demons to rest with his career winding down, would be an incredible final chapter to his career, especially against the likes of Rangers backstop Henrik Lundqvist.
With these teams so closely matched throughout the season – they split the season series and finished seven points apart – it’s that matchup in goal that may well prove the difference.
While Lundqvist is likely to win the Vézina Trophy, is a leading Conn Smythe candidate and has a 25-11-5 regular-season record against the Devils, Brodeur has been relatively average in these playoffs, something that will likely have to change for his team to go the distance.
And that battle between a living (and playing) legend and a man already stepping into his place as the game’s best is perhaps the most compelling story so far in these playoffs.
“He’s unbelievable,” Brodeur said of Lundqvist. “He is lately. He’s kind of the top goalie in the NHL right now. I think I was in that position once. Played against Patrick [Roy] played against Dominik Hasek, I played against all the guys [during]the top years in their career.
“For me, it’s kind of nice to be able to compete against them, regardless of what’s going to happen. I’ll do my best to try to match up, but it’s going to be pretty hard. He’s a pretty good goalie.”Report Typo/Error