The NHL is having a moment in the New York metropolitan area. It’s a moment that we’ve never seen before.
The New Jersey Devils are the shock of the season, amassing a 19-4-0 record while playing an exhilarating brand of hockey. The New York Islanders are 15-9-0, bouncing back from a disastrous campaign last season thanks to Ilya Sorokin, who could be the NHL’s top goaltender. Although the New York Rangers have yet to get rolling, they went to the Eastern Conference finals last season and returned a roster with star players and recent award winners.
Through Tuesday night, the Devils, Islanders and Rangers had a combined .657 points percentage, or the number of points in the standings divided by the total possible points. If that holds, it would be the most successful season for the three rivals combined since the Devils relocated from Colorado in 1982. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the previous high for combined points percentage is .599 in the 1993-94 season.
As Stan Fischler told me recently: “I don’t recall a trifecta quite as special as this.”
That assessment carries the weight of history. Fischler attended his first Rangers game in 1939. As a journalist, he covered each of these franchises during their Stanley Cup championship runs. He’s seen a lot of New York hockey. He’s never seen it look like this.
“Right now, we have the rare opportunity — slumps notwithstanding — for each of the Met clubs having a shot at making the playoffs,” he said. “This is rare, exciting stuff for the fans overall, and me in particular. It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m sopping it up every night.”
Don La Greca doesn’t quite have Fischler’s work history. He has been covering hockey in New York since he was working for Sports Phone and making $15 per Devils game in the early 1990s. Now co-host of “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN Radio 98.7 FM in New York, he’s also soaking in the moment.
“The Rangers are off to a slow start, but you know how good they are. If they get their act together, and if the Devils are for real, these are three of the better teams in the conference. And that never, ever happens,” he said. “As someone that makes a living talking about all sports, and as someone that’s dying for all three teams to be good so Michael Kay will let me talk hockey, this is a dream come true.”
To have all three teams strong and relevant is rare.
“Ever since I’ve been here, and this is my ninth year, it’s always been one or the other or the other,” Devils defenseman Damon Severson told me recently. “And it hasn’t been us, outside of one year.”
The numbers back that up. The Devils, Rangers and Islanders have all made the playoffs together in just three seasons:
1989-90: The Rangers beat the Islanders in the first round and the Devils were eliminated by the Washington Capitals.
1993-94: The Rangers swept the Islanders and then watched Stephane Matteau score the most famous goal in franchise history to eliminate the Devils in double-overtime of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals. Mark Messier’s Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940 in the following round, besting the Vancouver Canucks.
2006-07: The Islanders lost to the Buffalo Sabres in the first round, the Rangers and Devils both advanced but then were eliminated in the second round.
Mostly, it’s two of the three teams that qualify for the playoffs, which has happened 22 times. There were 14 seasons when only one team qualified for the playoffs — the Devils and Rangers six times each, and the Islanders in 2018-19 and 2020-21.
There’s never been a season when all three missed the playoffs.
Here’s a brief snapshot of each of these franchises, their place in the rivalry and their current status:
Last Stanley Cup win: 1994
Who they’ve been: The most important yet least successful franchise is an Original Six team with one Stanley Cup win since 1940. Yet that win exemplified the intrinsic prestige of the Rangers. It was magical, from the “Matteau! Matteau!” overtime goal to the Messier guarantee. Like the New York Jets in 1969 and the Mets in 1986, it was a championship that doubled as a cultural touchstone.
The Rangers are the team that spends the most on players, with an empire of fans who infiltrate the other buildings. They are “the big bad” for Islanders and Devils fans.
Who they are: The Rangers are a curious team. Last season, they amassed a .671 points percentage and made the Eastern Conference finals despite being 25th in percentage of shot attempts and 24th in expected goals percentage, thanks to Igor Shesterkin‘s Vezina Trophy-winning season and an unstoppable power play.
This season, the Rangers are sixth and ninth respectively in the aforementioned 5-on-5 metrics, but are just above .500. Shesterkin and the power play have been good, but not exceptional. Fans have started grumbling about head coach Gerard Gallant in just his second campaign with the team.
Last Stanley Cup win: 1983
Who they’ve been: The Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, an achievement that’s still treated with such reverence today because of its magnitude … and due to the lack of anything else to celebrate. They’re a franchise that’s survived crooked owners, inept management, regrettable contracts and stars abandoning them because they owned Toronto Maple Leafs bedsheets as children.
They’ve bounced from the rickety temple known as Nassau Coliseum to an ill-fated side quest in Brooklyn back to Nassau Coliseum, before finally securing a permanent home in a gorgeous new arena near Belmont Park racetrack.
They’re the bratty younger sibling of the Rangers, perpetually in their shadow. But if the Cup was ever back in their grasp, they could be like the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins in the past 15 years, with fans leaping on the bandwagon. (Which we assume is being driven by Ralph Macchio.)
Who they are: The Islanders have something to prove this season. Namely, whether they are the team that went to two straight conference finals in pandemic-impacted seasons, or the one that stumbled to a .512 points percentage last season, which caused the team to part ways with head coach Barry Trotz.
His right-hand man, Lane Lambert, took over a roster overseen by GM Lou Lamoriello — the architect of three Devils’ championship teams — and has led the Islanders to a successful opening quarter. They’re scoring more (3.25 goals per game) and allowing less (2.58), although the latter can be credited to Sorokin. The 27-year-old leads the NHL in goals saved above replacement and above expected, as the Islanders are actually 31st in expected goals against at 5-on-5 — obviously, something worth monitoring.
Last Stanley Cup win: 2003
Who they’ve been: Across the Hudson River from the other New York City franchises, the Devils went from a “Mickey Mouse” team in the 1980s to helping suck the fun out of the NHL in the 1990s as purveyors of the stifling neutral zone trap. They won three Stanley Cups (1995, 2000, 2003) and held three parades in their stadium parking lot at the Meadowlands before relocating to the Prudential Center in Newark in 2007.
The defensive trinity that fueled those wins — goalie Martin Brodeur and defensemen Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer — are all in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Like the Rangers in 2014, the Devils made a Stanley Cup Final appearance against the Los Angeles Kings (Devils in 2012, Rangers in 2014) and came up short. Unlike the Rangers, the Devils would spend much of the past 10 seasons in multiple rebuilds until this season’s breakout.
Who they are: If not the best team in the NHL now, it is probably the most exciting one. The Devils are speed demons whose transition game is unparalleled at the moment. They attack the opponents’ zone and manage to cover their own back end. They hound opponents defensively, pickpocketing pucks and racing back up the ice.
The “Triple H” core of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Dougie Hamilton — all healthy for once — has been stellar, while winger Jesper Bratt is a star. After two seasons spent trying to find a solution in goal, Vitek Vanecek has been arguably the most valuable offseason goaltending acquisition.
The season started with fans chanting for coach Lindy Ruff’s job. They actually chanted an apology to him during the team’s franchise record-tying 13-game winning streak.
There have been notable intersections between these teams through the years, the benefit of having all three populate the same division.
There have been nasty playoff battles, particularly between the Devils and Rangers. (The Rangers and Islanders haven’t met in the playoffs since 1994.)
There have been player vs. player rivalries, like those nights when Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist would duel in goal, or when Sean Avery would dip into his bag of evil tricks to taunt Marty. As of 2020, only 11 players had played for all three teams — one of them was ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes.
But it’s the fans that keep these rivalries intense even when the teams are idling. Remember the chants:
“1940,” which the Devils and Islanders fans used against the Rangers until 1994.
“Potvin sucks,” the whistling taunt Rangers fans use to mock Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin to this day, which was turned into “Rangers suck” by the other two fan bases when they co-opted the chant.
Both the Islanders and Devils fans have also turned “The Chicken Dance” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands” into anti-Rangers chants. They really do not like the Rangers.
“We want fish sticks,” which Rangers fans chanted when the Islanders changed their logo to one resembling the Gorton’s Fisherman, years before that jersey became beloved kitsch.
Oh, and then there was the Santa Claus fight.
On Dec. 23, 2003, the Islanders held a promotion in which anyone who came to the game dressed as a Santa Claus would get free admission and the chance to parade on the ice during the first intermission of their home game against the Flyers. Around 500 fans used this Santa clause to come to the game … including a few that ripped open their jolly ‘ole jackets to reveal Rangers jerseys, leading to an intermission brawl between hockey fans dressed as Father Christmas.
I was born into this nonsense.
My dad was a Rangers fan before the Islanders arrived in 1972. We lived in New Jersey, so I gravitated to the Devils as a young fan. My father, seeking to bond, gave up his Islanders fandom in favor of the local team, although our wood-paneled basement still had framed copies of New York Daily News cartoons that commemorated the Isles’ four straight Stanley Cups.
There are so many points of entry for NHL fandom. Maybe you’re born into it like I was or discovered it through a friend. Maybe it’s civic pride in supporting the home team or the pride in supporting a specific player. Maybe it’s the speed or the physicality or the way both immediately hypnotize those who attend a live hockey game. Maybe it’s the video games and the movies. Maybe it’s Tumblr and the fan cams. There are so many ways to love this sport — continuing to love it, through its various toxicities and gatekeeping from older generations, is another story.
I was welcomed into hockey by my father. What cemented my fandom was living and dying with my team during lengthy playoff runs, and the emotional turmoil that was the Battle of the Hudson. Those games when Rangers fans would invade the Meadowlands and every chant and cheer felt like defending your home from invading hordes. The next morning at school, the previous night’s result would dictate whether you were going to taunt or be the taunted. I was friends with Rangers fans. I went to the prom with a Rangers fan. Losing was not an option.
Severson recently told me that his teammates also feel that sense of urgency when they play the Rangers or the Islanders.
“When we’re in the other teams’ buildings across the Hudson River, it’s those games that mean a little bit more to players,” he said.
Severson has played the Rangers 34 times during his nine-year NHL career. That 34th meeting at Madison Square Garden on Monday night hit different. There were a few more Jersey jerseys roaming the narrow corridors. There were audible “Let’s go Devils!” chants after the road team scored. After the Devils scored their fourth goal, there was a mocking “EEEEEEE-GOR” chant directed at Shesterkin inside of his own rink.
“Rangers fans are loyal. They always show up to our building. Every time they score, they’d be louder than our fans. I think Devils fans were sick of that,” Severson told me. “Now, we currently have a winning team. It gives you that backbone to come out and support us. To see that tonight in MSG … well, you don’t see that often.”
You might see it more often. Getting all three teams in the playoffs together could happen beyond this season. The Devils’ average age is 25.6 years old. The Rangers’ average age is 26.1. Both are in the top six youngest teams in the NHL. The Islanders are the 6th oldest team (28.5), but have their core locked up through 2025 — including 25-year-old star center Mathew Barzal, who’s under contract through 2031.
“Who knows?” Fischler said. “We may have a Stanley Cup winner among the three.”
And if one wins the Cup … boy, are the other two going to hear about it. And the fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
From a recent Regina Pats game:
— Vicious Pibble 🐀 (@hadespuppy) November 23, 2022
Ah, yes, the time-honored tradition of the Draft Lottery Franchise Player Foul, previously seen for such young stars as Eric Lindros and (especially) Connor McDavid. Here we have a Vancouver Canucks fan who transformed a Brock Boeser jersey into one for Pats star and expected first-overall pick Connor Bedard, as well as a Detroit Red Wings fan who probably realized his team is too good to have a shot at Bedard so he just crudely taped “BEDARD” on his Lucas Raymond jersey.
Immediately after this, Flames fans booed Tkachuk. Then some laughed at the fact that they booed him so quickly. Then they booed him again. pic.twitter.com/ZEY56YgegN
— Julian McKenzie (@jkamckenzie) November 30, 2022
One never knows how these emotional homecomings will go. In the case of Matthew Tkachuk‘s return to Calgary as a member of the Florida Panthers, the fans booed him when he touched the puck, cheered him during a special video tribute and then booed him again during play … which is all very amusing.
What I’ve come to understand from my friend in Calgary: They feel differently about Tkachuk leaving than they do Johnny Gaudreau. They see Johnny Hockey as having strung them along until hours before free agency opened last summer. Although that’s his right, they’re not entirely wrong. Tkachuk, in contrast, told the Flames he was leaving a year before he could. I get the sense that kind of runway was appreciated and, hence, they don’t hold as much ill will.
Plus, one of them left for nothing and one of them brought back Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar via trade. That helps!
Winners and losers of the week
There was a time when a 9-8 game like the Seattle Kraken‘s win over the Los Angeles Kings this week would have been the talk of the hockey world for the next month. It was a head-turner, no doubt, but that kind of baseball score in the NHL has frankly become commonplace. It’s time to accept we’re in an offensive era and there’s no looking back. Through 362 games, the average goals per team per game is 3.18. That would be the highest since the 1993-94 season, when nine different players scored over 50 goals.
Loser: Cal Petersen
His fall from grace has been difficult to watch. He’s in the first season of a three-year, $15 million extension given to him by the Kings, who bought in after a solid 2020-21 season. He had a .895 save percentage last season. He was at .868 this season after giving up four goals on 16 shots to the Kraken. The Kings placed him on waivers and demoted him to the AHL. Ouch.
Winner: Jason Robertson
Loser: Jack Edwards
Kudos to Pat Maroon for turning the Boston Bruins commentator’s on-air mockery of his weight into an admirable charitable endeavor. But it was Maroon’s next day comments about what Edwards said that really brought it home: “If someone is watching the game that’s struggling with that stuff, and they’re listening to that, I mean, I can only imagine how they feel.”
Winner: Getting a home
The Arizona Coyotes moved one step closer to securing a permanent — or at least for the next 30 years — home in Tempe, as the city council approved their $2.1 billion arena and entertainment complex plan that will go to the voters in May. Commissioner Gary Bettman has fought for a decade to keep this team in the desert, convinced it can be a success there. He may yet be proven correct.
Loser: Losing a mask
I’m torn on the Connor Hellebuyck discourse. Hellebuyck lost his mask in a collision during a game against Dallas, and the Stars eventually scored while the Jets goalie was face down on the ice. Scouting The Refs had a good breakdown of the rule that allowed this, along with Hellebuyck’s reaction.
On the one hand, play should stop immediately when a goalie’s mask comes off like that, unless there’s a scoring play in progress — and Dallas making a pass for a shot is way too long in that context. On the other hand, goalies are nefarious creatures that will end offensive chances by any means necessary, so altering this rule from its current form could end up being a mistake.
Watch The Drop
On The Drop this week, we welcomed Sebastian Diamond from FaZe Clan to talk about their collaboration with the Islanders and listed our favorite nonverbal taunts in the NHL. Plus, a new “Search for Merch” and some love for the Devils. Our audience is growing on the NHL on ESPN YouTube channel, and we thank you all for that!