NEWARK — Ryan Graves, the sturdy defenseman for the New Jersey Devils, was one of many players who felt Thursday night’s game against the Rangers had a taste of playoff intensity — and for good reason.
With only seven games remaining in the regular season, the Devils are 4 points ahead of the Rangers. If the playoffs started today, those old rivals would be paired off in the first round, a rollicking matchup that would open the postseason with a zing. If it were to materialize, the pairing could make Thursday’s game, which the Devils won, 2-1, feel like a morning skate by comparison.
“There’s no existing bad blood yet,” Graves said. “We’re not in Game 3 of the series yet.”
For some, it is both fun and nerve-racking to contemplate what such a matchup would look like. The teams have faced each other six times in the playoffs, including a couple of compelling series for the ages. The 1994 conference finals, which the Rangers won on Stephane Matteau’s Game 7 overtime goal, was one of the most memorable series ever. But Devils fans got a measure of revenge, both by seeing their team win three Stanley Cups to the Rangers’ one over that period, and, more recently, by beating the Rangers head-to-head in the 2012 conference finals, which the Devils won on Adam Henrique’s overtime goal in Game 6.
If the teams meet again this year, it will be a fight between two evenly matched, high-quality squads.
The Rangers, who recently traded for Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko — a pair of high-powered offensive stars, each with a Stanley Cup-winning résumé — have deadly shooters spread all over the ice and a world-class goalie in Igor Shesterkin. They are looking to improve on last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Devils want to build on their surprisingly successful season by leveraging all the young speed and talent that has come to fruition slightly ahead of schedule. They, too, have a goalie, Vitek Vanecek, who has been a source of confidence and stability.
“A really good team is going to get knocked out in the first round,” said Joe Aloi, 24, a Devils fan who works for the Connecticut Department of Correction.
Aloi drove three hours to Thursday’s game at the Prudential Center with C.J. Teto, 22, his friend and former teammate on East Haven High School’s hockey team in Connecticut. Aloi wore his favorite Devils jersey, and Teto was decked in Rangers blue. They described the battles they’d had over the years, watching their respective teams play. Most of the time, that was on television, in Aloi’s basement. Occasionally, though, they go to games, too.
Aloi admitted to being nervous about a playoff matchup with the Rangers, but Teto, who manages a sporting goods store in Cheshire, Conn., displayed more bravado.
“I’m not worried at all, especially with the additions we’ve made,” Teto said. “But it’s definitely going to be a battle.”
The Rangers, headed into a game against the Sabres on Friday, have been gaining momentum in recent weeks and are one win away from reaching 100 points for the second consecutive year. That comes after four years in which the team’s only postseason berth was when it was swept in three games by the Carolina Hurricanes in the ad-hoc qualifying rounds of the 2020 pandemic postseason. New York started this season slowly, while the Devils shot out to a rousing start, only to slip back to the onrushing Rangers.
The Rangers went into Thursday’s game having won nine of their previous 11, with one overtime loss. The Devils had won just twice in their previous eight games. The gap was narrowing so much, the Rangers could have drawn even with the Devils for second place in the Metropolitan Division. The Devils felt the heat, and responded.
“It was a hard-fought game,” said Adam Fox, the Rangers defenseman. “This was a big game for us, standings-wise. But playing a team like Buffalo, those 2 points matter just as much.”
Because of the playoff and home-ice implications of Thursday’s game, both teams went hard after the 2 points, and some of the Devils players indicated they wanted to set a tone for any impending series with the Rangers.
“That’s a good team,” Graves said. “They’ve added pieces at the deadline, big pieces, and they’re better now than when we played them all year. It shows a lot that we’re able to win a 2-1 game against a team like that.”
The outcome actually created more uncertainty in the standings, and it could toss a wrench into the tantalizing prospect of a Rangers-Devils matchup in the first round. The Hurricanes are in first place in the Metropolitan Division, but they lost to Detroit on Thursday, and now the Devils are only 1 point behind them. Carolina has an extra game in hand, though. If the Devils do surpass Carolina and win the division, the Rangers would play the Hurricanes in the first round. If things gets really crazy, the Rangers could still win the division.
Graves has played in 25 postseason games, with the Colorado Avalanche before he was traded to the Devils in 2021. The Devils, though, have only made the playoffs once, in 2018, since beating the Rangers in 2012 before losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup final. But this team is different than the last several New Jersey teams.
“They’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of talent,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “They’re a real good team. I mean, obviously, they’ve got 102 points. But they’ve taken a step, like our young players. They’re a confident group.”
For the Devils, it was their third win in four games against the Rangers this season. Two went to overtime and only one game, a Devils 5-3 victory in November, was decided by more than one goal.
As is always the case when the Rangers are at the Prudential Center, they had many supporters in the building, and when Chris Kreider beat Vanecek for the Rangers’ only goal, it sounded as if a home team had just scored.
It was OK for Vanecek, though. He earned the win and become the only Devils goalie other than the Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur to win 30 games in a single season for the Devils (Brodeur did it 14 times). Standing in his crease during stoppages in play, Vanecek took stock of his surroundings.
“I saw a lot of blue jerseys today,” he said. “It wasn’t so fun. But it’s still better with all the fans.”
If the Devils face the Rangers in the playoffs, he better get used to it.