During the 1990s, the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers played in two of hockey’s most iconic playoff series. New York defeated New Jersey in a seven-game thriller during the 1994 Eastern Conference final en route to winning the Stanley Cup, only for New Jersey to exact revenge the following year during the second-round and get a Cup of its own.
The Battle of the Hudson River is fully reignited as the Devils have arrived ahead of schedule, playing the most entertaining brand of hockey in the NHL, while the Rangers look to overcome last year’s exit in the East finals and make a prolonged run towards the Stanley Cup once again.
Jack Hughes is the embodiment of the Devils’ hyperspeed pace and should earn down-ballot Hart Trophy votes after posting a 43-goal, 99-point season, while Nico Hischier is one of the NHL’s best two way presences.
Beyond their former first overall picks, New Jersey has received secondary scoring from Dawson Mercer, who caught fire during a 12-game point streak and finished with a 27-goal, 56-point campaign. Mercer may be evolving into a star in front of us, Jesper Bratt is a dynamic playmaker who notched 73 points, while Tomas Tatar, Erik Haula and Miles Wood have provided the ancillary scoring necessary to render the Devils as one of the greatest all-around attacks. New Jersey can score throughout the lineup, they hound teams with their blistering pace and Ondrej Palat always elevates his game to a new level during the postseason.
On the back end, Dougie Hamilton should earn some Norris consideration, while John Marino, Ryan Graves, Damon Severson and Jonas Siegenthaler round out a back-five that can suppress the best attacks in the league, while Brendan Smith has been solid in his role as a No. 6. Luke Hughes — Jack’s brother, and one of the best prospects in the NHL — is finally ready for action. New Jersey should be a very tough out.
Will the Devils get the necessary quality of goaltending needed to win a Cup? That’s the biggest question, as Vitek Vanecek, Akira Schmid and Mackenzie Blackwood form a talented yet erratic and unproven triumvirate against the battle-tested Rangers. This singular element could define the series.
New York enters this series with one of the most complete rosters in hockey, and anything short of a trip to the final may constitute a failure. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad both authored 90-point plus seasons, Chris Kreider scored 36 goals, while Vincent Trocheck has delivered on the scoring promise, as advertised. One of the best teams in hockey improved radically, betting that the The Kid Line of Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil would improve internally. At the deadline, the Rangers took two home run swings that would make their uptown neighbours proud, acquiring Vladimir Tarasenko, then Patrick Kane in succession, high-end offensive players with Stanley Cups who are admittedly negligent defensively.
The Kid Line can be frustrating to watch at times, as Kakko and Lafreniere show flashes of stardom, before reverting back to bouts of middling play. It’s worth focusing on the high-end potential, however, as the Kids pushed the Lightning to their limit, before Andrei Vasilevskiy and the three-time conference champions took over. Kane and Tarasenko are redundant in some ways, but they both pack the scoring punch and the playoff pedigree required to help the Rangers get over the top.
Adam Fox should be the Norris Trophy winner; drive yourself crazy over whether the award should go to him or Erik Karlsson if you’d like, but he’s been a superstar once again, while partner Ryan Lindgren is one of the NHL’s most underrated defenseman. K’Andre Miller has taken a massive leap and his excellent skating and reach could see him ascend into a star right under the bright lights of the postseason. Jacob Trouba delivers punishing open-ice hits and New York’s captain is quietly having another stellar season. New York is deep, loaded, and can both beat you up and out-skill you on the back end. It’s going to be a thriller.
New York has a sizeable goaltending advantage as Igor Shesterkin is once again among the NHL’s best keepers — he’s not going to be a Vezina finalist, but he ranks fifth in goals saved above expected and if he gets going in front of the Madison Square Garden crowd, expect the “Igor” chants to rival that of Led Zeppelin’s 1973 tour at the venerated arena.
There is a sense of urgency for the Rangers. They’re not ancient, but they have faced heartbreak, and deadline acquisitions Kane and Tarasenko are both slated to become unrestricted free agents this summer. It’s time for the Rangers to show their little brother who’s really the boss of the Hudson.
What have you done for me lately?
New Jersey was always bound to be the deadline’s most interesting team and they went out and acquired Timo Meier, who recorded nine goals and 14 points in 21 games with his new club. Luke Hughes — Jack’s brother — joined the team just in time to score an overtime winner in the season finale and he’s the rare college prospect who can — and will — make an immediate impact on this series. You can view the Devils’ season through the prism of before and after Meier. Since acquiring him from the Sharks on Feb. 26, the Devils posted a 13-7-3 record, the ninth-best total in the league, slightly worse than they were pacing before the deal. It’s not a harbinger of doom, though, as the Devils have the collective talent to win it all.
New York’s season can also be defined by the pre-Kane and post-Kane eras, given how it worked hard to acclimate the glitzy winger on its power play units. After Kane joined the Rangers on Feb. 28, New York went 13-5-4, the sixth-best record in the NHL during that span. Kane has settled into a top-line role alongside Kreider and Zibanejad, and now the real fun begins!
It’s worth noting that the Devils won the head-to-head series 3-0-1.
The Devils win if…
If their superior pace and scoring ability wears the Rangers down to a halt. Lindy Ruff is a masterful in-game tactician, and if the Devils can get league-average goaltending or better, they’ll continue to scare the rest of the conference.
The Rangers win if…
Shesterkin continues his run as one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, if Kane regains his playoff form during his first trip to the postseason in a new uniform and if New York’s Kid Line regains the dynamism it showed during the 2022 playoffs.
Meier was the best player available at the deadline and the Devils didn’t have to surrender any of their premium resources to acquire the former San Jose Sharks star. The power forward has been as good as advertised since joining the Devils. Meier finished second in individual expected goals at 5-on-5 behind Auston Matthews and in a short series, expect him to get the best of Shesterkin in a tight series.
The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung hero)
Miles Wood is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL and during a time where 5-on-5 goals come at a premium, his game-breaking pace is going to give New York’s defensive core fits. Expect Wood to chime in with a few timely goals when the top-six offense for both clubs dries up.
Devils in six.