Rangers-Devils Rivalry Heads to River Ave.

The Rangers gave the Devils their first win of the season back on Oct. 19. Since then, they have given the Devils two more wins (Nov. 12 and Dec. 7) and are 0-2-1 against them this season. When the two teams meet again, it will be under much different conditions where the New York January elements will be a major factor.

With the Rangers and Devils set to play in the first of the two Stadium Series games at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, I did an email exchange with John Fischer of In Lou We Trust to talk about how the Devils have rebounded from their disastrous start, how the team has recovered from the loss of Ilya Kovalchuk with the performances from their older players and what to expect from the Metropolitan rivals in the Bronx.

Keefe: The Devils’ leading scorer is 41 years old and averages .78 points per game. Their second-leading scorer has seven goals and is 37 years old. Their 41-year-old goalie has a 2.36 goals against average and .905 save percentage and has played in the majority of the team’s games. They lack elite scoring, big-time playmakers, superstars and All-Stars and didn’t win their first game until the eighth game of the season (against the Rangers, of course) and had one win in their first 10 games. Yet here they are on Jan. 24 with a winning record at 21-19-11 and are just three points out of the playoff picture. The Rangers wouldn’t have been able to come half of the adversity the Devils have this season and probably would have just packed it in and kept on losing after the disastrous start to the season. The roster keeps changing (except in goal), but the Devils continue to succeed. How does Lou Lamoriello keep doing this?

Fischer: Magic. No, seriously, I believe the New Jersey Devils are a lot more analytical than they let on. Having one or two seasons where they’re strong in possession or defense is one thing. To continually be ahead of their opponents in terms of stinginess or attempts at evens across multiple coaches and players strongly suggests that they’re monitoring and judging players on how well they do at both. The point totals for Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique may not be gaudy, but they do so well in both ends of the rink that they garnered big contracts. I don’t think other teams would have done that, but I’m confident the organization values players beyond how many points they earn.

The shortened 2013 season was a good example of how being a strong possession team keeps teams competitive even when the bounces don’t go their way. They really weren’t eliminated until the last few weeks of the season. Even so, they put up a fight nearly every night; they just couldn’t score any goals. This season, the shooting percentage is far better and they remain strong in possession; but they are just terrible at generating shots. Since most of the current roster are veterans, Peter DeBoer has been behind the bench for now three seasons, and Lou Lamoriello has seen it all, then this is a squad that knows not to get too frustrated or down on themselves if there’s a bad run of games or they go weeks without scoring much. So that has helped preventing 2013-14 from spiraling out of control. Granted, they continue to play on a knife’s edge given the Metropolitan Division and how so many of their games are decided by a goal and/or post-regulation play. But it keeps them in it and likely will through this season.

Keefe: I thought it was a report from The Onion when I heard that Ilya Kovalchuk was retiring from the NHL at the age of 30 and leaving 12 years and $77 million remaining on his contract with the Devils. But then when I heard he wanted to return home to play in the KHL it made sense.

To me, Kovalchuk was always the most underrated superstar in the league. With 108 goals by the age of 21 after his first three years in the league, following the 2003-04 season it seemed like Kovalchuk would be one of the premier names in the league for well over the next decade. But after the lockout, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin emerged, took over as the faces of the league and Kovalchuk was pushed aside and somewhat forgotten about because of the other two and because of where he played. In seven years in Atlanta, Kovalchuk went to the playoffs just once (2006-07) and that trip lasted four games with a sweep at the hands of the Rangers. And then in his eighth season in Atlanta, he was put on the block.

When Kovalchuk became available, I wanted the Rangers to be in on the wing whose lowest season goal total was 29, which came when he was 18 years old. The Rangers needed pure scoring (and they still do unless Rick Nash is going to score two goals a game for the rest of the season), but they weren’t able to trade for him and he instead went to the worst possible place for the Rangers.

Kovalchuk left the NHL with exactly a point-per-game average for his career (816 points in 816 games) and left New Jersey after playing in 222 games over four seasons, but he left a massive reliable scoring hole for the team.

How devastated were you about Kovalchuk leaving? What are your thoughts now after more than half a season in the post-Kovalchuk era?

Fischer: I was honestly shocked. I needed to read Tom Gulitti tweet that it wasn’t a joke. The initial reaction was summed up by Mike Stromberg perfectly: What? I’ve written further about the announcement later in the day after a few hours to take it all in. Even if Kovalchuk stayed, scoring goals figured to be a big challenge. Unfortunately, that fear came true as the Devils are among the league’s lowest scoring teams. I wrote back in July that in the long run it may not be a big deal. But in the short term like this season, the Devils absolutely miss a high-shooting winger who oozes skill. The Devils’ power play, one of the worst in the league at generating shots, absolutely misses Kovalchuk at the point. It may have been a regular play to set up a one timer to him but at least they had a regular play. The Devils really could use more offensive production from the wings and that’s what Kovalchuk would normally provide.

That all said, I really do not want Kovalchuk to come back to the league or the Devils. He made his choice to back out of his deal and take a better one with an inferior league. He’d rather be the biggest fish in the smaller pond. That’s fine but I want him to live with that choice. I believe they will find productive players through free agency and the draft later such that he team will not need him in a few years. So I’d rather have the Devils suffer without him in the short term.

Keefe: Martin Brodeur has played 1,247 regular-season games and 205 playoff games. He has been in an NHL net for 86,130 minutes or 1,435 hours and 30 minutes or 59.8 days. He’s 41 years old, has played in 27 of 51 games this year and has a 2.36 goals against average and .905 save percentage. He’s going to play forever, isn’t he?

Fischer: No, he’s not. For the first few months of this season, Cory Schneider has been held back due to playing well while Martin Brodeur was playing well or not playing well when Brodeur was not playing well. In November, Schneider and Brodeur weere both great. In December, Schneider was poor and Brodeur was poorer except for a handful of great games. It wasn’t until this month where Schneider has improved whereas Brodeur really didn’t. As a result, Schneider’s started seven games this month (with a .960 save percentage) to Brodeur’s four (at an .890 save percentage). It’s not that Brodeur can’t have a good game anymore or that the team can’t win with him. It’s that he’s not consistently good enough while Schneider has been. So more and more fans want Schneider to be the regular starter. I think we will see that come to fruition after the Olympic break. After this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brodeur calls it a career. It’s not as if he has anything left to prove. But then he hasn’t had anything to prove for years now.

Keefe: The first Stanley Cup I remember watching was the 1990-91 Cup when I was four years old and my mom woke me up to see the Penguins celebrating their championship. Jaromir Jagr was on that team and was 19 when he first got his name on the Cup and a year later he got his name on it for a second time. The 1990-91 finals was 23 years ago. I said 23 years ago. Jaromir Jagr is still playing in the NHL.

When the Devils signed Jaromir Jagr during the offseason, I thought it was a necessary move to try and add scoring following the departure of Kovalchuk. Jagr did have 35 points in 45 games last season and 54 points in 73 games for the Flyers in 2011-12. I thought he would have to be a complimentary piece given his age and not his name, considering his last 20-plus goal season in the NHL was six years ago with the Rangers.

Jaromir Jagr will be 42 on Feb. 15 with no signs of slowing down. How long can he do this for?

Fischer: Admittedly, I was not a fan of the Jaromir Jagr signing. I thought it was rushed in part of Kovalchuk’s decision to quit on the team. I didn’t think he would have much left in the proverbial tank. As I wrote back in July, I wasn’t confident that he would be a significant scorer. Well, I look foolish now since he’s the team’s leading scorer with 42 points in 52 games. He leads the team in goals (16), assists (26), and shots (130). He’s been excellent in possession; he’s not just picking up points and doing little else. He actually has been seen in the defensive end of the rink trying to do something. Most impressively, he plays down low so, so well. Jagr essentially posts-up defenders and works very hard along the perimeter. He maybe lost a step or two speed-wise, but he’s still strong enough to battle with the toughest of defenders, skilled enough to make some of them look stupid, and smart enough to know when to pass it out or continue control of the puck. He’s 42 by birth, but he’s playing like a game-hardened 29-year-old looking to earn a fat contract this summer. I am enamored with how he’s been playing with the Devils this season. I’m at a point where I wouldn’t think it would be a terrible idea if the Devils re-signed him. Father Time always wins but Jagr has put in monumental effort to defy him as long as he has been doing.  I hope he can continue playing like this through the rest of this season and, honestly, nothing that I’ve seen from him suggests he won’t or can’t.

Keefe: The Devils started the season 0-4-3 before they hosted the Rangers. The Rangers were in the seventh game of their season-opening nine-game road trip and lost 4-0 to give the Devils their first win of the season. Nearly a month later, the Rangers lost to the Devils again, this time 3-2. And nearly a month after that, the Rangers lost to the Devils again, this time 4-3 in overtime. Each Rangers-Devils game this season has come following a Rangers win and the Devils have stopped them from building a winning streak or have stopped their current winning streak. What kind of game do you expect on Sunday and what are you feelings on the Stadium Series game?

Fischer: I expect an absolutely fantastic game on Sunday. Devils-Rangers games are always big affairs. The Devils and Rangers legitimately don’t like each other. The Rangers are surely peeved that they haven’t beaten the Devils yet this season.  The Devils organization from top to bottom despises the Rangers. On top of that, the game is important in the short term. With a win, the Devils can catch the Rangers in the standings.  The Rangers dropped their last two and, as we are seeing from the Capitals, a losing streak is a fast ticket down the Metropolitan. They want to avoid dropping three games regardless of the rivalry.  Throw all of that onto a massive national stage and you have the makings for a regular season classic. I’m looking forward to being there, but I will admit a win will make it even more worthwhile to attend.

That all said, both teams aren’t big scoring teams and they are strong possession teams this season. I expect it to go like the two games at MSG: a close, perilous affair where one or two bounces or defensive miscues makes the difference. I wish Schneider was starting this one, then I’d feel even better about the Devils’ chances. I hope Brodeur and the team makes my concerns be wrong.

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Neil Keefe is the founder and editor-in-chief of Keefe To The City along with writing columns and hosting podcasts. He has written for WFAN.com and CBSNewYork.com since February 2010.

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