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The last time the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils met, at Madison Square Garden on March 19, it took all of three seconds for fists to start flying.
In a vicious start to a bitter game between division rivals, six players dropped the gloves in an opening-faceoff line brawl while coaches John Tortorella and Pete DeBoer jawed at each other from their respective benches.
|Stu Bickel and Ryan Carter dropped the gloves on March 19.|
Will things be different this time around when the two clubs clash Monday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals?
"Devils-Rangers, don't be surprised by anything," Rangers tough guy Brandon Prust said with a sly smile.
Fisticuffs may not be the centerpiece of this Hudson River battle, but the hatred between the two teams is pure and unfettered. The last time the Devils and Rangers met in the Eastern Conference finals was 1994, when the Rangers knocked off New Jersey with Stephane Matteau's iconic wraparound goal in double overtime of Game 7. The Rangers then went on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940.
It remains one of the most bitter defeats of Martin Brodeur's legendary career.
"I grew from that. I think it hurt, no doubt about that," he said. "I never hide it that it [affected] me. I think I was the first one to say that was one of the toughest losses I have had. But if I didn't have that loss, maybe I wouldn't have become who I became, or even our organization, not just myself."
|Brodeur has been frustrating the Rangers for two decades.|
So much has changed in the 18 years since. Brodeur has cemented his legacy as perhaps the greatest goaltender of all time, while Henrik Lundqvist has emerged as one of the game's elite in recent seasons. And starkly different from the Devils' defensive-minded teams of years past, New Jersey now plays an aggressive, up-tempo game built upon offensive opportunism. By contrast, the Rangers are the stingier defensive team having forged their success around a lunch-pail squad known for its hard hitting and relentless shot-blocking, which grinds teams down and frustrates them along the way.
All the makings of an epic best-of-seven set.
"There are a lot of things that make this series special," Lundqvist said.
Veteran forward Mike Rupp has seen the rivalry from both sides of the Hudson River and said the teams' dislike for each other only intensifies with the zeal of their respective fan bases.
"I remember being on the other side," Rupp said of his two stints with the Devils from 2002-04 and 2006-09. "In the playoffs, there would be more blue jerseys than red [in the stands] and it was just kind of one of those things that made you hate them even more.
"I got to see it from the other side this year and it's one of the great rivalries of the game. It should be a good series."
Rupp said the nastiness might not be limited to the ice, either. The 32-year-old predicted some "feisty stands activity" as well.
"It's one of those things where you tell your wife to leave the kids at home," he said. "Unless you get the earmuffs going."
Devils enforcer Cam Janssen, who has yet to appear for New Jersey this postseason, experienced the venom in his first playoff experience between the two teams back in 2006 when the Devils swept the Rangers.
He said it was "the coolest thing I've ever done in my life."
"I remember sitting on the bench and looking up and seeing a scuffle in the crowd. I look up, and there's a bunch of people fighting in the stands. They're into it, we're into it, and it's just awesome."