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Rival in Focus: New Jersey Devils

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

It doesn't feel like all that long ago that the New Jersey Devils gave fits to virtually every team in the National Hockey League -- they were, after all, three-time Stanley Cup champions between 1995 and 2003 and took four trips to the Cup Final between 1995 and 2012 -- but none more so than the Flyers. The Flyers lost twice to the Devils in the Eastern Conference Final (1995, 2000) on New Jersey's way to winning the Stanley Cup and also fell to the Devils in the second playoff round in New Jersey's most recent run (2012) to winning the Eastern Conference Championship. While the Devils fell on hard times thereafter and have missed the playoffs in eight of the last 10 years, they've often continued to, well, bedevil Philadelphia.

Dating back to the 2013-14 regular season series between the clubs, the Flyers have posted a 12-14-2 record against the Devils in the last 28 games between the teams. On an all-time basis, Philadelphia owns a record of 89-98-12 record plus 15 ties (pre-2005) in regular season games against the Devils. New Jersey has won three of the five playoff series the clubs have played against each other. Thing went better for the Flyers in last year's season series with the Devils, most notably with Carter Hart recording his first NHL shutout in the regular season home opener and Sean Couturier winning a Nov. 1, 2019 shootout that began Philly's climb to the NHL's best record that month.

Overall, not much has gone right on the ice for New Jersey since the end of the Lou Lamoriello era and the departures of their last remaining iconic players from their glory years, such as Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur and career-long Flyer killer Patrik Elias. However, in recent years, the Devils stocked up on draft picks and caught some lottery luck in being awarded the first overall picks of the 2017 (Nico Hischier) and 2019 (Jack Hughes) NHL Drafts. The biggest keys to the Devils' long-term nucleus are Hughes and Hischier, along with fast-rising young goaltending standout Mackenzie Blackwood. 

The team is also banking in the bigger picture that the package of young players and draft picks received from Arizona in trade for 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall -- 2020 first-round pick Dawson Mercer, gargantuan 20-year-old prospect defenseman Kevin Bahl, young center Nate Schnarr (entering his second pro season), and reclamation project former Arizona 2015 first-round pick Nick Merkley -- will some dividends in the future. Over the past year, New Jersey also added another former first-round draftee last February when they acquired left winger Nolan Foote (an incoming rookie for 2020-21) and the 20th overall pick of the 2020 NHL Draft (Russian defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin in a trade with Tampa Bay for veteran forward Blake Coleman.

YOUTH MOVEMENT UNDERWAY

New Jersey tried to make a big splash last offseason with the additions of veteran defenseman P.K. Subban, longtime Flyers power forward Wayne Simmonds, Russian import forward and longtime KHL standout Nikita Gusev plus the arrival of the very highly touted Hughes. Some pundits even declared the Devils before the season as the NHL's most improved team and a sleeper pick to make the playoffs. It didn't work out as hoped.

The Devils struggled and went into seller mode (dealing the likes of Hall, Simmonds, Coleman, Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene) on the way to a 28-29-12 record. As their consolation prizes for New Jersey finishing out of the playoffs and the Coleman trade, the Devils wound up with three first-round picks in the 2020 Draft: Swedish winger Alexander Holtz (7th overall), Mercer (18th) and Mukhamadullin (20th). 

The team also changed coaches last season. John Hynes was dismissed and Alain Nasreddine finished the campaign as interim head coach. For this year, the Devils brought in one of the NHL's most experienced bench bosses as the new head coach, hiring 60-year-old Lindy Ruff in July. Ruff has a longtime reputation as a hard-nosed head coach; demanding but fair and well-respected by most of his players. He has pledged patience with the team's many young players.

One of the most hopeful signs in Newark has been the quick emergence of Blackwood as a bonafide No. 1 NHL goalie. Between the Flyers' Hart, New Jersey's Blackwood, and the New York Rangers' Igor Shesterkin, some of the most exciting and upwardly mobile young goalie talent in the entire NHL resides within the Eastern Division. The Devils also signed longtime Chicago Blackhawks goalie and two-time Jennings Trophy winner Corey Crawford (now 36 years old) to a one-year contract to back up Blackwood.

Hughes experienced some growing pains as an 18-year-old NHL rookie last year, especially in five-on-five play. However, the player has superstar upside in the long haul and figures to build significantly on his rookie output (21 points in 61 games) as he gains experience and strength. Hughes got manhandled at times a rookie but his puck skills and speed are outstanding. Hischier, who turned 22 on January 4, is a conscientious two-way player and respectable point-producer when healthy. Injuries have set the Swiss player back at times. Last season, injuries limited 22-year-old winger Jesper Bratt to 60 games (16 goals, 32 points), but the young Swede continued to show promise. 

Still just 23-year-old, Pavel Zacha hasn't lived up to his pre-Draft hype when the Devils selected him with the 6th overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft -- bypassing the likes of Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski and Mikko Rantanen -- but he posted career bests of 24 assists and 32 points in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. There is also youth on the side of players like second-year NHL winger Jesper Boqvist and 2016 first-round pick Michael McLeod, who is now entering his third pro season.

The Devils still have various holdover veterans whose abilities are familiar to most fans. Kyle Palmieri led the team in scoring last season and is a perennial 25-to-30-goal scorer over a typical full-length season. Thirty-five year old Travis Zajac is entering his 15th season with the Devils. 

Resident agitator Miles Wood, now entering his fifth season, is now a young veteran NHL winger at age 25. He has drawn the ire of Flyers players (not to mention players on various other teams) on multiple occasions in recent years but there's more to his game than being a pest. Wood can also chip double-digit goals and 25-to-30 points over a full season. He flirted with 20 goals two seasons back, finishing with 19. 

Entering his second NHL season, the 28-year-old Gusev will look to expand on his production from his first season after making the jump from the KHL. He had 13 goals and 31 helpers a year ago, with 15 of his points coming on the power play. Twenty-two year old countryman Mikhail Maltsev displayed promise at the AHL level last season with Binghamton.

On Jan. 7, the Devils brought Vatanen back into the fold as an unrestricted free agent. The 29-year-old missed much of last season due to injury and was unable to ever suit up for Carolina following his trade from the Devils. New Jersey received Janne Kuokkanen and Fredrik Claesson in the deal. When healthy, Vatanen is a valuable piece on the power play and can play a lot of minutes. However, he's been injury-riddled for several years. He is on a one-year, $2 million contract this year as New Jersey hopes he can regain his old form.

Subban's first season in New Jersey was a disappointment. The 31-year-old is in need of a bounceback campaign. Meanwhile, the Devils are also hoping for a jump in the two-way progression of Will Butcher (now 26) and production more along the lines of the former Hobey Baker Award winner's NHL All-Rookie Team season of 2017-18. Damon Severson is an established point-scoring threat from the back end (he's hurt the Flyers several times in his career) and, at age 26, is just hitting his prime. There's still room for him to improve his off-puck play and overall consistency. Puck-moving right-handed defenseman Connor Carrick, a six-year veteran. also remains in the mix.

Twenty-year-old Russian defenseman Nikita Okhotiuk, selected by the Devils in the second round of the 2019 Draft, has significant long-term upside once he navigates the learning curve in the pro game. 

2020-21 FLYERS VS. DEVILS SEASON SERIES

Jan. 26 Flyers @ New Jersey Devils
Jan. 28 Flyers @ New Jersey Devils
Feb, 11New Jersey Devils @ Flyers
Feb. 13 New Jersey Devils @ Flyers
Mar. 23 New Jersey Devils @ Flyers
Apr. 20 Flyers @ New Jersey Devils
Apr 29 Flyers @ New Jersey Devils
May 1 Flyers @ New Jersey Devils

RIVALRY HISTORY

It took a long, long time for the New Jersey Devils to find a stable home much less a team identity. 

In the beginning, the old Kansas City Scouts were a woefully overmatched club during their two-year existence. There were some past and future Flyers connections, however, as veteran Simon Nolet was the expansion team's first captain and Dennis Patterson broke into the NHL with the club. If nothing else, the Scouts hockey team was a checkpoint for a couple of accomplished future NHL amateur scouts during their playing days.

The Flyers showed the Scouts no mercy when the teams played. Philly went 9-0 with one tie in their 10 overall meetings. Along the way, the Broad Street Bullies laid not just one, but two separate 10-0 whippings (Dec. 1, 1974 and Nov. 2, 1975) on the visiting Scouts when they came to the Spectrum.

The Scouts relocated in 1976 from Missouri to Denver, where the team was renamed the Colorado Rockies. The change in location and home rink altitude didn't have much bearing on the franchise's (very sparing) success against Philadelphia. The Flyers went 19-4 with two ties all-time against the Rockies in the regular season and outscored them by a combined 38 goals (113-74). Philly made quick work of the Rockies in their meeting in their 1978 mini-series playoff encounter. Six different Flyers players scored across the two Philadelphia wins in the best-of-three set. 

When two teams are so widely mismatched, there isn't much of a "rivalry" to discuss (this theme will also come up when describing Flyers vs. Penguins pre-1989 before shifting dramatically over the last 30 years). Just about the most notable Flyers-related aspect of the Rockies' history was the presence of Joe Watson and Don Saleski playing for Colorado at the end of their respective NHL careers. Longtime Flyers goalie Doug Favell also spent two-plus seasons of late-career time with the Rockies.

The Rockies relocated yet again for the 1982-83 season, this time to northern New Jersey, where the team name changed to the Devils. Despite the close geographic proximity of the Devils (who spent many years in the Meadowlands before establishing a home base out of Newark) to Philadelphia, the "rivalry" was largely non-existent, apart from a few memorable fights that make the rounds on YouTube nowadays. The Flyers were a perennial Cup contender and the Devils, to use the words of Wayne Gretzky in 1984, were a "Mickey Mouse organization."

It was not until Lou Lamoriello left Providence College in 1987 to become the President and general manager of the Devils (where he remained until 2015) that the fortunes of the New Jersey franchise began to shift. 

By the early 1990s, the Devils were gradually building a contender at the same time the Flyers were in a five-year spell of missing the postseason. New Jersey fell one win short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1994, losing to Mike Keenan's Rangers in seven games. New York went to win its first and only Stanley Cup since the 1939-40 season. 

Following a half-season work stoppage in 1994-95 and a blockbuster trade with Montreal that brought John LeClair and Eric Desjardins to Philadelphia, the Flyers re-emerged as a Stanley Cup contender. Led by the Legion of Doom line (Hart Trophy winner Eric Lindros, power forward LeClair and 1993-94 Calder Trophy finalist Mikael Renberg) plus the likes of Rod Brind'Amour, Kevin Dineen, Desjardins, second-stint goaltender Ron Hextall and a fully revamped blueline that included NHL All-Rookie team defenseman Chris Therien, the Flyers won the Atlantic Division.

In the playoffs, the Flyers took down Buffalo in five games and then proceeded to sweep the defending Cup champion Rangers in four straight games, That set up an Eastern Conference Final matchup with New Jersey.

A classic series ensued. New Jersey won the first two games in Philadelphia before the Flyers won the next two on the road (including an overtime nail-biter won by Lindros). Game 5 at the Spectrum was tied at 2-2 as time ticked down to the final minute of the third period. With just 45 seconds left on the regulation clock, arch-pest (and frequent playoff scorer) Claude Lemieux scored on a slap shot from the right point that got past Hextall. New Jersey held on to win.

The Flyers scored first in Game 6, as Jim Montgomery put the visitors on the board. But that was just about the lone highlight for the Flyers. New Jersey played its neutral zone trap to stultifying near-perfection (as they did in all four of their wins in the series) and went on to win 4-2. A late goal by Renberg was too late and too late.

Ultimately, Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Lemieux, the "Crash Line" (Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso) and the Flyers impatience in dealing with Jacques Lemaire's trapping system proved to be a little too much to overcome in a close series. New Jersey proceeded to do the same thing to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, winning in a sweep.

Not only did the 1995 season forge an identity for which the Devils team would be known for many years, it also marked the bonafide start of a rivalry between the Flyers and the North Jersey club. In particular, anytime Stevens matched up with Lindros, it was a battle. 

The Devils got the better of the Flyers in most seasons to come but the Flyers would have their moments of revenge, too. First, however, the Flyers had to deal with the heartache of what happened in 2000.

The Flyers' 1999-2000 team appeared to be a team of destiny, even with Eric Lindros sidelined with concussion-related issues and longtime stalwart Brind'Amour being traded to Carolina mid-season for Keith Primeau. Meanwhile, head coach Roger Neilson had to take leave after he was diagnosed with cancer. Assistant coach Craig Ramsay assumed head coaching duties.

The remaining group was deep, talented, resilient and close-knit. It seemed like nothing was going to stop Philly. Rookie Brian Boucher was stellar in net after taking over starting duties from veteran John Vanbiesbrouck. 

The Flyers ousted the Sabres in five games in the first round. In the second round, Philly recovered after losing both Game 1 and Game 2 at home against the Penguins to win each of the next four games. The most pivotal win came as Primeau won a marathon Game 4 in the fifth overtime period. Later in the series, rookie defenseman Andy Delmore recorded a hat trick to put Pittsburgh on the brink of elimination.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Flyers met the Devils for the first time since the 1995 series. Philadelphia promptly built a three games to one series lead in rather convincing fashion. A return trip to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1997 seemed imminent. 

Returning home for Game 5, the Flyers came out flat and New Jersey won handily. All the while, there had been rampant rumors that Lindros could return to the Flyers lineup. He did , in fact, return forGame 6 in New Jersey. The former Hart Trophy winner also scored the lone Philadelphia goal (after having a previous would-be goal disallowed because time had just expired in the second period) in a 2-1 loss that was deadlocked at 0-0 entering the third period.

The seventh and deciding game was back in Philadelphia. It would turn out to be one of the most anguishing nights in team history, and the final game that Lindros played as a Flyer. In the first period, Stevens caught Lindros with his head down, landing a crushing open-ice hit near the New Jersey blue line. A concussed Lindros went down in a heap and had to be helped off the ice.

A first-period power play goal by New Jersey's Patrik Elias was answered by a second period man advantage tally by Rick Tocchet. The Flyers simply could not solve Brodeur a second time with the season on the line. The game went deep into the third period tied at 1-1 before Elias scored the series-winning goal at 17:28. As much as the Claude Lemieux goal in the final minute of Game 5 stung in 1995, this one devastated Philadelphia even more. 

Boucher, who had made a circus save on Elias earlier in the epic series, gave his team every opportunity to pull it out. Quite simply, the Flyers never fully recovered from the debacle of Game 5 when they let the Devils get back up off the ropes a little too easily. New Jersey got stronger and stronger thereafter. 

In the 2003-04 season, with a lockout impending before the next season, the Flyers again appear loaded for a deep playoff run. First, though, they had to exorcise the Devils. 

The tables finally turned. The Flyers dismantled New Jersey in five games and were the better team in that series in most every facet of the game. That was even true of the goaltending matchup as, for that small sample of games, Hall of Famer Brodeur was outplayed by Philly's Robert Esche. Defenseman Kim Johnsson and late-season acquisitions Alexei Zhamnov, Vladimir Malakhov (an ex-Devil) and Danny Markov were excellent in that series, as well.

As the playoffs continued, Primeau had a career reputation remaking run of extended excellence. The Flyers then prevailed in a six-game war of a second-round series with Toronto (one year after emptying the tank in a seven-game marathon against the same club). Unfortunately, the attrition started to add up, especially on the Flyers' blueline. Johnsson went down in the deciding game of New Jersey series and returned at far less than 100 percent. Desjardins was lost for the playoffs. The Flyers also saw Marcus Ragnarsson go down.

Philadelphia went seven games with Tampa Bay in the 2004 Eastern Conference Final but Ken Hitchcock's team lost the deciding game to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. 

By the time the Flyers and Devils met again in the playoffs, it was 2010, and the hockey landscape was much different. The 2003-04 season was the last season before the adoption of the salary cap, and a large-scale overhaul of the way games were officiated. 

Additionally, through the simple passage of time, there were very few holdover players left on either the New Jersey or Philadelphia rosters from the series of the past. New Jersey still had the seemingly ageless Brodeur, as well as forwards Elias, Jay Pandolfo and Jamie Langenbrunner (who had been part of the 2004 series) plus defenseman Colin White. On the Philadelphia side, only Simon Gagne had been a Flyer for both the 2000 and 2004 series, while Boucher was only part of the 2000 series. "Boosh" had subsequently been traded to the Coyotes before returning to Philadelphia.

For Peter Laviolette's Flyers, the past meant little. After qualifying for the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs by virtue of a final-day shootout win against the Rangers, it was like the Flyers had been given a new lease on life in what had been an up-and-down regular season after Philly entered the year as The Hockey News' favorite to win the Stanley Cup. 

In the playoffs, the Flyers were loose, confident and very resilient. The journey began with defeating the Devils -- who had entered the series picked to win by the majority of pundits -- in five games. Two goals by rising young standout Claude Giroux, one by Danny Briere and a 28-save shutout by Boucher in the deciding game ended the series. Philly also won a pair of OT decisions in that round. 

Philadelphia went on in the second round to make NHL history by recovering from a three games to zero deficit against Boston including a 3-0 first period deficit in the seventh and deciding game. The Flyers made quick work of Montreal in the Eastern Conference FInal, as Michael Leighton recorded three shutouts. That set the stage for Philadelphia's valiant but ultimately crushing six-game effort against Chicago in the Cup Final, ending on a nightmarishly fluky overtime goal by Patrick Kane in Game 6.

The Flyers and Devils faced off yet again in the 2012 playoffs; this time in the second round. This year was the last playoff hurrah for the now 39-year-old Brodeur. Elias was still there and still averaging about a point-per-game for his career against Philly. 

Philly entered the first round against Pittsburgh as underdogs -- the Penguins were the almost universal pick to win the Cup entering the 2012 postseason -- but prevailed in a wild, high-scoring, emotion-packed and often downright dirty six game series. The Flyers closed it out in six games after winning each of the first three and losing the next two. 

In the meantime, New Jersey had a tough first round series of its own, needed to go the full seven games and back-to-back overtimes in the last two matches to defeat Kevin Dineen's Florida Panthers. The Flyers won game one in overtime, 4-3. Briere had a would-be game-winning goal disallowed in the extra frame but, shortly thereafter, scored another that counted.

In Game 2, the Flyers were outplayed most of the way but took a 1-0 lead into the third period after an early goal by Matt Read. Unfortunately, the Devils overwhelmed the Flyers with their forecheck and structure as the game moved along and New Jersey scored four unanswered goals in the third period including three in the final 8-plus minutes. 

Game 3 in New Jersey was, by far, the series best and most competitive contest. The match could have gone either way, and the Flyers failed on a pair of overtime power play opportunities before Alexei Ponikarovsky won it for New Jersey at the 17:21 mark. 

In Game 4, the Flyers built a quick 2-0 lead in the first period on a Scott Hartnell power play goal and Claude Giroux shorthanded tally. The Devils stuck back late in the period for a pair of tallies to send the game to intermission tied at 2-2. Thereafter, New Jersey controlled the final 40 minutes and a pair of goals by ex-Flyer Dainius Zubrus sent Philadelphia down to a 4-2 defeat.

Need a win at home to stay alive in Game 5, Max Talbot got the Flyers on the board first yet again. But a Bryce Salvador goal and a communication miscue between Ilya Bryzgalov and Kimmo Timonen that gifted a goal credited to David Clarkson put New Jersey ahead, 2-1. Ilya Kovalchuk added an insurance goal early in the third period and the Flyers were eliminated after a 3-1 defeat. New Jersey went on to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the LA Kings.

Since that time, the Devils have only reached the playoffs once (2018) and lost in the first round. The Flyers reached the postseason in 2014, 2016 and 2018 but were also unable to advance. Finally, in 2019-20, the Flyers won a first-round series against Montreal and fell one win short against the Islanders in a seven-game second round.

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