Make no mistake: the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rivals, bound by geography and defined by history. Their proximity is obvious looking across the Hudson, at the standings and in seeing the two teams battle six times annually during the regular season as part of the Atlantic Division. History is personal, made in the moment by the players involved and remembered throughout time by the fans on each side. It becomes the fabric that enthralls us all when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That is the backdrop for tonight's Game 6 in New Jersey. The Devils have a chance to close out the Eastern Conference Final and play for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2003. The last time the Rangers went to the Cup final was in 1994, when they trailed the Devils three games to two in the ECF. They famously came back in dramatic fashion on the strength of captain Mark Messier's vow of victory in Game 6 -- backed up by his hat trick -- and Stephane Matteau's overtime goal in Game 7, going on to win the Cup in seven breathtaking games against Vancouver. It was the first title for the Blueshirts since 1940 and that magical spring in Manhattan lives on forever as part of hockey lore.
Now, does any of that have anything to do with the line matchups tonight? Do those events 18 years ago -- eerily to the exact dates for Games 5, 6 and, if needed, 7 -- have an impact on the Devils' group, led by stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise? Will goaltender Martin Brodeur at 40 harken back to himself at 22 and get wrapped up in the karma/coincidence of the identical dates when he heads onto center stage at the Prudential Center at 8 tonight?
Of course not.
But after the fact, no matter how it unfolds and ultimately turns out, this series becomes part of the bigger story, adding to the layers of the rivalry.
What matters in the moment is whether Rangers' goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can deliver a signature game. He's coming off his poorest performance of the playoffs -- New York netminder Mike Richter had to bounce back after coach Mike Keenan pulled him in Game 4 in '94, if you're looking for more parallels -- and must show the steely resolve he's already displayed in winning two Game 7's this spring. When I think of Lundqvist at crunch time, I recall the lunging left pad save he made late in the game for Sweden against hated rival Finland -- geography and history again embedded -- in Torino to preserve their Olympic gold medal victory in 2006. As good as he's been in the NHL, Lundqvist's legacy may well be forever linked to his play tonight.
In the end, Game 6 will be about the blue collar Blueshirts' resilient play yet again: Dan Girardi blocking shots; Ryan Callahan forcing on the forecheck; Brad Richards making the key play in precisely the right situation.
For the Devils, tonight is all about one more round of Brodeur's bravado -- (can he really still come through?), Kovalchuk realizing his career-long quest for playoff glory, and an underrated supporting cast taking unheralded star turns.
No matter who comes through, there is always a "Matteau moment" on nights like these -- the winger scored the double-overtime winner for the Rangers in Game 3 in '94 as well as the series clincher. Not knowing where or when or who it will come from only adds to the intrigue. And the drama.
This time there is no Mark Messier, no brave guarantee like in 1994. Different players, different times. Same rivalry, same dates, though. Riveting on so many levels. Impossible to ignore from either side of the Hudson.