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Fast friends Gomez, Pandolfo face off tonight

by John McGourty

Rangers' center Scott Gomez will face his former team,
the New Jersey Devils, for the first time tonight at MSG.

Dissatisfied with comments he heard earlier this year from the stands during Red Sox-Yankees games, Boston’s star slugger David "Big Papi" Ortiz delivered an important message to the fans.

It was important to fans of all sports.

Paraphrasing, Ortiz said Red Sox players shared with their fans an insatiable desire to beat their rivals every time they play. But they don't share the negative personal feelings they sometimes hear coming from the fans. The players on each side respect each other, Ortiz said. They know they could just as easily be teammates as opponents, given the nature of professional sports. They've seen former teammates switch sides in the rivalry, like Johnny Damon and Mike Myers. No hard feelings, but I'm here to beat you, on the field.

Similarly, a New Jersey Devils fan or a New York Rangers fan might be put off at the sight of Jay Pandolfo and Scott Gomez laughing, giggling and working out together at Mike Boyle's side entrance to hell, er, Mike Boyle's gym in Wilmington, Mass., during the off-season.

Longtime friends and teammates – but now divorced due to free agency -- Pandolfo and Gomez spent the summer working side-by-side to be ready to defeat each other when their teams meet in the regular season.

That first meeting comes tonight (7 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden as the Devils pay a visit on the Rangers.


Here, the Devils will see Gomez sporting a new look. The No. 1 center on the Devils the past few seasons, Gomez signed a seven-year deal July 1 to play with the New York Rangers

Gomez has just two goals and one assist in his first eight games, not the start he was anticipating

Clearly, life has gotten tougher for Pandolfo too, as the Devils try to find their way under new coach Brent Sutter and have struggled without the offensive artistry that Gomez brought to bear on a nightly basis.

But it's gotten tougher for Gomez, too. By joining the Rangers, he signed up to play eight head-to-head contests this season against the bigger, frustrating, board-pounding Pandolfo, and a total of 56 matchups over the life of his gaudy new contract.

Thus, any interview of the two players had to begin with the following question:

Scott, what the heck were you thinking when you signed to play in so many games against one of the NHL's best, if not the best, defensive forwards, Pandolfo?

Gomez: "It was probably my time to go with the other organization; but I didn't want to go too far. It was probably the closest team, and I couldn't leave my boy that far behind.

"Jay is very good at what he does and you can tell that by the respect factor everyone in the League has for him. He's a solid player night in and night out, and you know what you're going to get every game.

"To beat Jay Pandolfo, you have to do a lot and you have to be on top of your game. Everyone in the League knows how tough it is to play against him. He should be up for the Selke Award every year for the rest of his career. Should have had one already.

"It's like this: Yes, it's tough to play against him, but at the same time it's a great challenge and I like to be challenged."

Jay, you had great success when teamed with Gomez, winning a pair of Stanley Cups and capturing the Atlantic Division title in four of seven seasons. How difficult will it be to play without him and how difficult to play against him?

"It's going to be tough, obviously," Pandolfo said. "He'll match up against some of our better players. It's actually going to be fun. I know some of his tendencies, so hopefully that's going to help me out."

Jay, Scott went home to play in Anchorage during the lockout and had one goal and 4,000 assists or something. He moves on skates like an eel covered in bacon grease and can quickly change where the attack is coming from. It's one of his top skills, correct?

"He's the type of player who makes everyone else on the ice better,” Pandolfo said. “He can score goals, but a lot of times he's looking to pass the puck to the open man who's in better position to score goals. That's one of his best assets. He led the NHL in assists a couple years ago. He's going to a Rangers team with a lot of tough snipers and that's going to make them a better team. It's going to be very tough to contain him.

"It's actually going to be fun. I know some of his tendencies, so hopefully that's going to help me out."
-- Devils' forward Jay Pandolfo on facing Scott Gomez

"I think he's added a lot to his shot in the last couple of years and that makes him a lot more dangerous. Maybe it's just me, but I think he's going to score a lot more goals this year, where he's going."

Scott, the Rangers have developed a distinct style of play under coach Tom Renney, but how much does a team's strategic plan change when it changes its top two centers?

"Coach Renney definitely did change the way the Rangers play,” Gomez said. “It was kind of wild there before, but now there is a definite system. I think the job for me and Chris Drury is to adjust to their game. They've had good success. They're building on something and I'm not going to try to change things. Neither is Chris. We're just going in there with the idea that whatever Tom Renney wants from us, that's what we're going to try to give him."

Jay, this isn't the first time, in your time with the Devils, that offensive stars have moved on. We've seen Alexander Mogilny, Jeff Friesen, Bobby Holik, Petr Sykora, Brian Rolston and Bill Guerin depart over the years, yet the juggernaut moves on. Is the Devils' success a result of the system as much or more than the stars, the individuals?

"We've lost key guys in the past, defensive players, too, like Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, a lot of good players, and this year, with two huge off-season losses in Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski, it's tough to replace those guys,” Pandolfo says. “What we have to do is come together as a team and we seem to always do that."

Guys, the Rangers got stronger, the Flyers rebuilt, a strong Pittsburgh team added Darryl Sydor and Petr Sykora. Maybe the Islanders aren't as strong as a year ago but the analysts could be wrong. How competitive is the Atlantic Division?

"I think the Atlantic Division will be the most competitive division in hockey," Pandolfo said. "It seems like every team got better so it's going to be tough. With our team, we always find a way to adjust, play the system, play as a team."

"I'm not counting out the Islanders," Gomez said. "I think every team in the division is stronger."

So who’s better the Devils or the Rangers?

"Oh man, you're talking about a guy, Martin Brodeur, who is going to go down as one of the greatest ever," Gomez said. "But Henrik Lundqvist is the real deal. He won the Olympic gold. I'll put it this way: I probably wouldn't have gone to the Rangers if he wasn't in net because it all starts with goaltending.

"One thing about Marty, though: Until he retires, he'll be the NHL gold standard for goaltending."


"We do."

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