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Stakes are raised in Rangers-Devils rivalry

New Jersey Devils' Cam Janssen, right, fights with

New Jersey Devils' Cam Janssen, right, fights with New York Rangers' Mike Rupp during the first period of an NHL hockey game. (Dec. 20, 2011) Credit: AP

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- We're a long way from 1994, from "Matteau, Matteau, Matteau," the Meadowlands and Messier, but the rivalry continues Monday night at Madison Square Garden with higher stakes.

Rangers. Devils. The Eastern Conference finals.

And the winner gets home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Finals.

"I love playing these guys," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said Sunday, about 14 hours after his team left the Garden following an intense Game 7 elimination of the Washington Capitals.

"During a regular-season game, sometimes it feels like a playoff game, so it's always an intense matchup," Staal said. "It should be that much more. The challenge for us is coming off the high of winning Game 7 and to bring the same emotion and desperation into [Game 1]."

Game 2 is at the Garden on Wednesday.

The Rangers and Devils, who vanquished the Flyers in five games in the conference semifinals, split the six-game season series, with the Devils winning one of the games in a shootout. Another game, on March 19, started with three separate brawls after the opening draw, when Brandon Prust, Mike Rupp and Stu Bickel dropped the gloves with Cam Janssen, Eric Boulton and Ryan Carter.

"I think it's going to be physical," Ryan Callahan said. "Both teams, they like to play that style. They've been chippy games every time we played them in the regular season. I don't see that changing. At the same time, you have to make sure you're disciplined, don't get too emotional out there. I'm sure you're not going to see guys fighting on an opening faceoff, but it's going to be intense."

So no shenanigans?

"No," Rupp said. "You've got to be smart. They have a pretty effective power play . . . There's much more at stake right now than beating your chest."

Rupp, a former Devil in his first season with the Rangers, said that when he was with New Jersey, the games against the Blueshirts were always "circled. That was the main rivalry. There's a lot more rivalries on this side: the Flyers, the Islanders."

The Devils seem happy to be playing the role of underdog, the No. 6 seed in the East playing the top dog.

"They're the best team in the Eastern Conference. They proved it all year," goaltender Martin Brodeur said. "They got themselves the No. 1 spot. They used it for two Game 7s to be able to stay alive in the playoffs, and they're going to use it to have home-ice advantage right from the get-go on us. We have to do what we've been doing, just put our head down and listen to our coach and just play well."

For his part, Henrik Lundqvist downplayed any head-to-head rivalry with Brodeur, saying the challenge is to defeat the team. And naturally, coach John Tortorella didn't want to stir up any playoff dust storms, the strategy he has been taking for the past month.

The attention that the national and local media are giving the series is "terrific. I think it's great for the area," Tortorella said. "We talk about being one of the four teams left. They need to embrace that; it's hard to get there. I just hope the team isn't too interested in all the sideshows . . . It's not about winning two rounds, it's about finishing up . . . They should feel good about themselves, but you've got to be real careful not to just feel this is what it is; this isn't what it is. This is halfway . . .

"Sometimes it's not the best teams [who win], it's the teams who are playing the best hockey. It's a team that has that type of mental toughness."

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