My plan for this post was to choose the top ten games of the upcoming season. However, when I first glanced at the schedule in an attempt to do so, I realized this would be a nearly impossible task. Thus, I decided to expand this list to 15 matchups, which was still extremely tedious to do. Whether they are games against Atlantic division rivals, previous Stanley Cup Finals teams, a renewed franchise (the Jets are back!), during an important road trip or homestand, or any other matchup, each of these has some elevated meaning. Of course, there will be important games throughout next season that are not on this list, but these games below should all be extra intriguing.
*Note: These games are not ranked. They are only in order of date, starting with the season opener.
-Flyers @ Devils (10/08/11): How could the season (and home) opener possibly be off this list? The Devils will be looking to start an entirely new playoff streak this year, and it all starts with a matchup against a fierce rival. The Flyers should look much different than they have in past seasons, with a competent goaltender and a new focus on their blue line. Jaromir Jagr will face the Devils with his third Atlantic division team, and the likes of Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk will now be leading the Flyers’ attack. The ‘Devs will be looking to start the season in a much different fashion this year, after last year’s horrific start put the team, at one point, in the NHL’s basement.
-Jets @ Devils (11/05/11): While fans in Winnipeg should expect some growing pains with their Jets this season (and possibly for a few more), it is surely exciting to see a team there once again. This will be the first matchup between the Jets and Devils this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find some excited Winnipeg fans at the Prudential Center that night. It should be interesting to watch this team throughout the year; besides, the Ilya Kovalchuk trade from two seasons ago might have hastened the franchise’s departure from Atlanta.
-Devils @ Bruins (11/15/11): Any game against the defending Stanley Cup champions presents a challenge, and this is the first of four meetings between the Devils and Bruins this season. It should be fun to watch a high-energy game (I’m sure the Garden will be packed all season), and to see the likes of Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara, two heroes to the city of Boston (Thomas’s personal story of perseverance is unbelievable). Perhaps more importantly, this game is the second in a five-game road trip for the Devils, in which they will face an early-season test against Northeast and Southeast teams.
-Devils @ Islanders (11/25/11): The day after Thanksgiving, this game is a rare Friday matinee at Nassau Coliseum. It is also the first of a home-and-home between the two teams, and their first matchup of the season. Playing the Islanders has proven to be unpredictable over the years; if the Devils are on their game, they can triumph easily by a hefty margin. However, when the Devils have been off in the past, the Islanders have jumped on every loose puck, and capitalized on every opportunity. Thus, losses to them are extremely frustrating to watch, and it will be interesting to see if the two teams play each other the same way this season.
-Canadiens @ Devils (12/10/11): Any time the ‘Habs come into New Jersey, we can expect to hear much noise (as unpleasant as it can be) from the road fans at the Rock. This game should be no different, as a Saturday matchup will be sure to see many Canadiens fans travel in from Quebec. These games have always had some extra intensity to them; the Devils have been generally successful against Montreal in recent years, with Marty dominating against his hometown team. In recent years, there has been talk that ‘Habs goaltender Carey Price could be brought in as a future successor to Brodeur; however, this is obviously no longer the case, as Price was phenominal last season in making the Canadiens’ brass look pretty smart in choosing him over Jaroslav Halak.
-Rangers @ Devils (12/20/11): There is nothing more bittersweet than beating the Rangers, and nothing more devastating than losing to them. Oddly, the first matchup between the two arch-rivals comes over two months after the start of the season; however, it promises to be just as intense. Us Devils fans will watch Brad Richards as a Ranger on our ice for the first of many games, perhaps on the same line as Marian Gaborik; it would be interesting to see how the Devils would go about defending against this unit, as the days of the Madden-Pandolfo backchecking line are long over. Whoever triumphs in this game should gain some momentum, as each of these contests always seems to mean more than any other regular season game.
-Capitals @ Devils (12/23/11): A Friday night game against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals promises to be exciting. While this will be the third matchup between the teams of the season, it promises to bring the same hype as any other Devils-Capitals game would. Personally, I have grown to hate the ‘Caps over the years, as their attacking style of play, with almost no regard for handling the puck behind their own blue line, has been extremely annoying for me to watch. Personally, every season the Capitals waste in the playoffs is a victory for the superior, pre-lockout style of hockey, and I hope it can reign supreme when we play them this season.
-Penguins @ Devils (12/31/11): The last game of 2011 should be an intriguing one to watch. I strongly believe this Penguins team can be the best (on paper, at least) in the league this season if they can somehow stay healthy; hopefully, by this time, Sidney Crosby is back for the ‘Pens, although his post-concussion syndromes do not look too encouraging at this point. With the star power that the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Parise, Kovalchuk, Fleury and Brodeur bring to the ice, this matchup should be exciting to watch, as hopefully the Devils are in good position by the start of the new year.
-Bruins @ Devils (1/19/11): The Devils will play the Bruins in the second game of a six-game homestand, five of which are against Eastern Conference playoff teams from a season ago. This stretch is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to gain some momentum at home; obviously, facing the defending champions is as hard as any matchup. This will be the third game of four between the two teams, and playing the Bruins should bring some extra buzz into the Prudential Center.
-Rangers @ Devils (1/31/11): In the first game after the All-Star break, could there be any better way for the Devils to create some momentum than beating their arch rival after six days off? These are the Rangers, and the two teams should start to notice the standings by this time; thus, not only would winning this game be a bittersweet way to knock a rival down a few pegs, but could also be very important in positioning in the Atlantic division and Eastern Conference. Also, this matchup is the fifth of six games during the aforementioned homestand, which adds even more importance to this one.
-Devils @ Rangers (2/7/11): It is pretty strange that the first Devils-Rangers matchup at Madison Square Garden would be this late in the season. However, while it is awesome to quiet their fans at the Prudential Center, it is even sweeter to see the Devils win on the Rangers’ ice. This will be the first time these two play in the newly renovated MSG, in fact, and while this is the second game between these two teams on this list in a span of eight days, each of these matchups are increasingly important and could truly all be considered for a spot.
-Ducks @ Devils (2/17/11): A rematch of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals is never unintriguing. The Ducks will be looking to improve on their playoff appearance from last season; with a squad build around Hart winner Corey Perry, right wing Bobby Ryan, and (healthy, thankfully) goaltender Jonas Hiller, they have a good chance to win a series or two this year. We will all always have memories from that seven-game series eight years ago, and can be sure this game will be played with much intensity with less than two months left of regular season action.
-Canucks @ Devils (2/24/11): Last year, especially after games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, I was convinced I was watching the best post-lockout team the NHL had seen. The Canucks had a terrific, balanced attack, a stacked defensive core, and a seemingly elite goaltender to offer; however, after the loss in Game 7 and the riots that followed, they quickly became a hated team and a hated fanbase by various other hockey markets. Now, the Canucks will look for some way to rebound from such a crushing defeat, and to find a way to win that 16th playoff game and hoist the cup. They can certainly do this; however, there will be a lot to overcome. Nevertheless, seeing the defending Western Conference champions against our Devils should be exciting, as they will have to find a way to beat Roberto Luongo and fend off Daniel and Henrik Sedin, among others.
-Devils @ Penguins (3/25/11): This will be the second time in nine days the Devils face off against the Penguins, and if the season has gone well enough, these two teams could be looking for two points towards a possible Atlantic Division championship. Even if the Devils are only fighting for a playoff spot, this would be a very important game indeed, and a large challenge late in the season. In fact, this will be the second straight year these two teams play in Pittsburgh on March 25th; last season, the Devils lost in a shootout after 65 minutes of tense, scoreless hockey.
-Senators @ Devils (4/7/11): The last game of the season will once again take place at the Prudential Center. The last time one of these mattered was two seasons ago, when the Devils clinched the second seed after defeating the Sabres (in fact, Buffalo pulled their goaltender in a tie game, needing two more points than the ‘Devs if they wanted that seed). Hopefully, the Devils are in playoff position by then, and are only potentially fighting for a different seed; however, we have seen some exciting last few days in the NHL in past seasons, and it is possible that this game could be a must-win.
Discussing these games alone is making me excited for the start of the season. Like I said, there were various omissions from this list (including games against the Lightning and Red Wings) that could be equally intriguing, and possibly more important, depending on where the Devils are in the standings. However, these fifteen stood out for various reasons, from late-season importance to exciting rivalry games, and each should be intriguing regardless of where the two teams on the ice are in the standings.