The Florida Panthers' shocking elimination of the record-setting Bruins meant...

The Florida Panthers' shocking elimination of the record-setting Bruins meant the playoffs needed an Original Six team to stay in it. Hello, Rangers.  Credit: AP/Michael Dwyer

NEWARK — No one from the NHL or its media partners would admit this unless under oath, but they had a rooting interest when the Rangers and Devils met on Monday night in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series.

No offense to the state of New Jersey, the Devils franchise, Jack Hughes or the statue of Martin Brodeur outside the Prudential Center, but . . . well, c’mon now.

The Devils are an exciting young team, for sure. The Rangers are one of the NHL’s most iconic brands, with a roster full of recognizable names.

That kind of pro-Original Six bias would exist under any circumstances. But the importance to the league and television executives of having the Rangers in the second round — and perhaps beyond — rose by several degrees on Sunday night.

That was when the big, bad Bruins went down in a big, bad seven-game loss to the Panthers. Then the Avalanche lost a Game 7 to the Kraken.

So much for a record-setting regular-season powerhouse in the Bruins and the defending Stanley Cup champions from Colorado.

A day earlier, the Lightning, who had qualified for the three Cup Finals in a row — along the way eliminating the Islanders (twice) and Rangers (once) — were bounced by Toronto in six games.

It was the fifth time in the NHL’s expansion era (since 1967-68) that the previous season’s two Cup finalists and the current season’s top regular-season team all played in and were eliminated in the opening round.

Again, no disrespect to anyone involved, but . . . Panthers-Maple Leafs, Kraken-Stars, Oilers-Golden Knights and potentially Devils-Hurricanes?

Not ideal. At least Edmonton superstar Connor McDavid still is around.

As strong a brand as the Maple Leafs are, they are an afterthought for U.S.-based television networks, because their local ratings do not count here.

But their failure to so much as reach a Final since 1967 is one of the strangest things in sports and watching them try to end that drought will make for a good story.

Three of the four second-round series are first-time playoff matchups, something that has not happened since 2003.

So there will not be much rivalry juice for fans to drink up.

Traditionally, there has been no sport with a postseason more unpredictable than that of the NHL, so even Florida’s monumental upset of the Bruins was within the realm of hockey playoff logic.

The NBA long has been the opposite of that, especially in the early rounds, where major upsets are rare.

That has not been the case this season, and by chance it has worked in the league’s favor.

The Heat’s upset of the Bucks led to a 1990s remix of Heat-Knicks, but the big news came in the West, where the No. 6-seed Warriors and No. 7-seed Lakers advanced to a marquee second-round matchup between star-studded teams.

Few outside their home cities will miss the departed Kings and Grizzlies.

So some of this playoff alchemy is a matter of luck, and none of it was on the minds of the Rangers and Devils as they prepared for Game 7, of course. The teams had traded body blows through six games, and the betting odds suggested more or a less a toss-up for the series finale.

It was the teams’ first Game 7 meeting since the epic, iconic, Stephane Matteau-clinched double overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden in 1994.

That game resonated in the memories of fans — and participants — old enough to remember it as the 2023 version began.

This time, though, the Devils and Rangers came at Game 7 from different directions.

One was a young team that made a surprisingly fast rise up the standings.

The other was a veteran team under pressure to make a deep playoff run now.

But those are the sorts of storylines followed by local journalists and fans who know the teams well.

Across most of North America, only one of the two franchises truly resonates among neutral fans in marketing and viewership terms.

So entering Game 7, it was let the best team win, of course. But with the Bruins and some of their high-profile friends already off the ice until autumn, one team more than the other on Monday night would have made for a bigger win in the bigger picture.

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