Whether they realize it or not, tonight's game is about so much more than just surviving to play another game for the Devils. It's about so much more than bragging rights, too. For years, people have been saying that the Devils are on the verge of collapse, that their era of domination is coming to an end. Yet year after year, the Devils are right there in the thick of things. Now, however, the end may finally be near.
Marty has managed to keep his team competitive for years now. But Marty's clearly getting older. Marty used to get into opponents heads even before the game started. Not any more. Marty can't do it alone anymore. The problem for the Devils is that they don't really have the players necessary to help him.
What happens when the face of your franchise is on the decline? Hopefully you have some young stars waiting in the wings who can step in and begin carrying the torch. The Devils do not. In fact, Hockey's Future ranks the Devil's a dreadful 28th out of 30 teams in the NHL with respect to the quality of the franchise's prospects (FYI: the Rangers are ranked 8th).
Option number two is to go the free agent route. The problem for the Devils is that they're simply not a sought after destination for many of the league's top free agents. The biggest bonus that Jersey had going for them was the winning culture that surrounded the franchise. Certain athletes may have overlooked the less desirable aspects of playing hockey in New Jersey for a chance to win. That winning culture seems likely to fade sooner rather than later. Maybe even tonight. So why would any top free agents choose New Jersey? Money? Probably not: the salary cap prevents teams from blowing other bidders out of the water. Top free agents will get very similar offers from all potential suitors. Players will be making their selections based on the location of the club, the likelihood of success, etc... Those criteria do not bode well for the dwindling Devils.
A Rangers win tonight will be less noteworthy than a Devils' loss. The Devils have much more at stake then just the chance to play another game in 2008. This could be the end of an era. Cap'n Lou surely recognizes his team's dilemma. The players certainly realize it as well. How dreadful it must be for them to recognize that the final nail in their franchise's coffin may very well be hammered in by the hated Blue Shirts.
Under normal circumstances the Devils' players never quit. Under these circumstances, well....the team from Broadway better be ready for the fight of their lives because that's exactly what the Devils will be playing for.