Rangers and Devils. Two of the most hated franchises in hockey to many Philadelphia Flyers fans. If the sound of those two names echoing in your ears doesn't excite you as a Flyers fan - then it's over and you might as well keep walking towards the light.
The Flyers are going to be taking on the Rangers in NYC tomorrow night (Thanks Downeaster!) and the Devils at home on Monday. For those non-Flyer fans...imagine your two most bitter rivalries and double it - then you are close to understanding what these two games mean for a Flyers fan. I would place those rivalries up there with the Leafs/Habs, the Battle of Alberta and the ago old struggle of cats vs dogs. The Rangers and Devils hold significant places in the hearts of Philadelphia hockey fans. Let's look at them - not in what we will see this weekend - but as the season starts in a few weeks.
The boys in blue are, arguably, the class of the Atlantic this year. They picked not one, but two of the major free agents from the UFA tree in Drury and Gomez. The Rangers obtaining those two quality centermen make them deeper and stronger than ever. Yes, they lost Michael Nylander and I truly believe that will hurt when it come to perennial All-Star Jaromir Jagr's mental state. Will he continue to be dominant no matter who passes him the puck? Yes. Did Jagr have a special place in his hockey heart for Nylander - absolutely. Could that void impact his psyche and his game? To be determined. Scott Gomez is a playmaker that, when he gets in sync with that first line, will likely be on track for a career year. Straka - Gomez - Jagr could be scary to watch. I actually rooted for the Flyers to get Gomez at the start of free agency. Marcel Hossa is making a case, however, to take a spot from Straka on the top line of the Rangers...this could bear watching.
Drury is a flat out player. He is well rounded, can score in bunches and is money is clutch situations. For the Rangers to have gotten him to center their second line is just unreal. He would be a #1 center on most any other team. They are very solid through the middle - much like the Flyers of the 80s were with Lindros, Primeau and Hanzus. Drury will likely have Avery on the left and Shannahan on the right wings. That would equate to a potent and gritty line that can bang you as much as score on you.
In goal you have two time Venzina finalist Henrick Lundqvist. He is a stud. End of story. He can singlehandedly steal victory from the jaws of defeat. He reminds me very much of a young Martin Brodeur. If this is anywhere near correct, then the Rangers will be competitive for many years to come. It also means the Vezina will come to New York.
The one question I have with the Rangers is their defense. Can their defense stop enough teams from scoring and take the pressure off of their considerable potent offense to have to score 4 goals a night? If they can, then the Blueshirts should make a run at the Division title. I think Rozival is much better than people think. I think Staal will not only make the team, but also play a significant role this year.
At the end of the day, the Road to the Atlantic title will likely go through New York or Pittsburgh.
When I think of the Devils, I think of one man and one man alone - Martin Brodeur. He has been Judge, Jury and Executioner for the Devils in their dominance over the Atlantic for the past decade. The Division title for the Atlantic has always gone through the Swamp. Heck, Jimmy Hoffa might be buried near where Martin keeps his goal sticks.
The Devils are changing though. Gone are the days of the left wing lock. The Devils do not have those players anymore. Jamie Langenbrunner and Cam Jannsen hurt. Scott Gomez, their best playmaker, is gone. Brian Rafalski, best defenseman, is gone. The fact that Gomez went up I-95 to the Blueshirts makes it hurt even worse. Travis Zajac will likely replace Gomez on the first line and have to somehow improve his game to keep Patric Elias and Brian Gointa effective. Paul Martin will have to try to replace Rafalski's 55 points and powerplay prowess as he plies his trade in Detroit. That is a tall task. With Jamie Langenbrunner and Cam Jannsen both out for quite some time, the second and fourth line RW jobs are up for grabs. Yesterday, Colin White was hit in the eye with a puck and, reportedly, suffered potentially serious eye lacerations.
Yes things are not what they once were in the swamp, but they still have #30 between the pipes. As long as Martin Brodeur skates out onto the ice, the Devils have a chance to win. He is that good and has been that good for, what seems, forever. Last year the Devils worked Brodeur like a dog and he got the ultimate prize of a Vezina and the record for most wins in a regular season - formerly held by Bernie Parent. (Bernie has the record in my book). There is no doubt that Brodeur is the cornerstone of that franchise and will be until he decides to hang up his well decorated skates.
With all of this change occurring, a few questions emerge. Can the Devils score enough goals to take the pressure off of Brodeur so he won't have to play 78 games and nearly 4,700 minutes of ice time? Can the Devils defense play the kind of defense hockey that Brodeur is used to? Can the key losses of Rafalski and Gomez be offset by other, younger players? All good questions that will be answered when the puck drops.
One thing that is worth mentioning is that the Devils now have one of the best coaches in all of hockey in Brent Sutter. His performance with the Canadian National team in the recent Summit Series was nothing short of masterful. He makes the Devils a much scarier team to play against on a nightly basis. Great move by Lou "The Don" Lamorillo. I just hope Lou has the smarts to keep this guy and not fire him like so many of the other Devils' bench bosses.
I am looking forward to this weekend, just for the fact that the names Rangers and Devils are back into our hockey vocabulary. I will reiterate that I think the miraculous revamping of the Flyers roster has placed them in a position to get back to the playoffs. If they do get there, they will have to beat teams, like the Devils and Rangers, within the division. I am excited about their prospects to do just that. Can we drop the puck already?
Thanks for reading.