The New Jersey Devils are out of the playoff picture.
That’s the reality facing them as the New York Rangers sent the Devils to its third straight loss, 3-2, at the Prudential Center. The win pushed the Rangers into a three-way tie with the Devils and Maple Leafs for seventh in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey has less regulation wins then both teams, forcing them to ninth in the conference.
Rick Nash scored the game-winning goal in the second period. The Rangers left wing took a feed from Michael Del Zotto in the neutral zone and carried the puck into the right circle. His shot beat Johan Hedberg blocker side and snuck inside the far post for his 10th goal of the season.
It was his first in the Hudson River Rivalry and dealt the most serious blow to New Jersey this season. They have one regulation win in its last 13 games. Despite outshooting its opponent for the 11th straight game, the Devils failed to score more than two goals. Tonight was the eighth game that New Jersey failed to score more than twice, a trend that is wearing thin.
“We did everything [tonight] except score when we needed to,” center Travis Zajac said. “We had our chances. We just didn’t get the bounce. We’re playing well in other areas, we’re getting chances. We have to find a way to get some scoring.”
Now with just 18 games remaining in the season, it’s now or never if New Jersey wants to defend its Eastern Conference title.
“We know what’s ahead of us,” David Clarkson said. “It’s going to be a battle to the end, and I think we have the guys in this room and we’re ready for it.”
Zajac and Anton Volchenkov scored for New Jersey, who had their three game win streak against the Rangers snapped.
The Devils once again allowed the opponent to score first, falling behind after a Del Zotto shorthanded goal in the first period.
The play started when Hedberg misplayed a puck in his own end. He came out above the left circle to try and start the rush, but Derek Stepan stepped in and took the puck. Hedberg stole it back, sending a pass up the boards to Peter Harrold. He couldn’t control it, and Derek Stepan carried the puck into the corner. Ilya Kovalchuk blocked his centering attempt, but it came to the front of the net. Del Zotto swatted the puck past Hedberg for his third goal of the season.
“He must have been a good baseball player as a kid,” Hedberg said. “That’s pretty impressive.”
Allowing the first goal frustrated Devils head coach Pete DeBoer.
“The team that scores first wins most of the games or a lot more than they lose,” DeBoer said after the loss. “If you look for things over the last dozen games, I think we’ve outshot the opponent almost every night. The chances have been even or we’ve out-chanced them almost every night. That’s the one thing that jumps off the page.
“We’re not getting the first goal and then we’re playing from behind. If we play from behind, we have to open it up sometimes and you give up more than you should.”
The rivals exploded for three goals over the next 2:58.
Zajac began the outburst with a power-play goal at 15:15 of the first period. The Devils center emerged from a scrum in the front of the net with the puck. His backhand shot from below the right hash mark beat Henrik Lundqvist through the pads to tie the game.
That score broke an 11-game goal drought for Zajac.
Carl Hagelin gave New York a 2-1 lead over a minute later. Dan Girardi sent a perfect pass off the end boards behind the Devils net to Hagelin at the right post. The Rangers left wing was wide open, and tapped the puck into the net for his eighth goal of the season.
New Jersey bounced back to tie the game 1:23 seconds later. Volchenkov scored his first of the year, putting his shot from the left circle to the far post and past Lundqvist.
That would be all New Jersey could muster as Lundqvist shut the door after that. The Rangers goalie made several quality saves, none better than two stops on a Devils power play in the second period. Lundqvist made the initial stop on Kovalchuk in the slot, and recovered to make another save on Alexei Ponikarovksy, stopping the forward on a shot from the side of the net.
He continued that later in the middle period, denying Clarkson a game-tying goal. Patrik Elias carried the puck into the slot before leaving a drop pass for Clarkson. The Devils right wing quickly shot the puck from below the right hash mark, but Lundqvist snared the attempt with his glove.
The Rangers goalie finished with 29 saves. He’s allowed three goals or less in his last ten starts, winning six of those contests.
New York also blocked eight shots, making the comeback effort that much more difficult.
“They block everything,” Clarkson said. “It’s not a secret. They block point shots, they block winger shots. They really find a way to get in front of everything.”
Hedberg met that effort, twice denying the Rangers an opportunity to stretch the lead. The first came on Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan during a two-on-one rush. Stepan carried the puck into the right circle before sending a pass to Callahan in the slot. The Rangers captain put his shot toward the right post, but Hedberg slid across and blocked the puck with his stick.
He robbed Hagelin on a point-blank chance later in the period to keep the deficit at one. A turnover behind the net led to a chance in the slot for Hagelin, who was all alone. Hedberg quickly reacted to his glove slide shot, grabbing the attempt.
Hedberg made 19 saves in the loss, his 11th loss in the last 14 starts.
New Jersey once sat atop the Eastern Conference standings, but their recent struggles completely eliminated its hot start. The Devils need to battle with several teams fighting for the chance to just make the playoffs.
“Obviously, you don’t want to be out of the playoffs, but there’s lots of hockey left and that’s a fortunate thing,” Devils captain Bryce Salvador said. “So, yes, today we’re out of the playoffs, but there’s lots of hockey left and it’s going to come down to the wire. As you see the standings, everything’s so tight. A couple games and we can go from out of the playoffs to the sixth or seventh spot.”
DeBoer appreciates the effort of his team, but acknowledged there is no more room to reward good effort.
“We have to start getting points,” DeBoer said. “The try was there. The effort was there. But it’s been there almost every night this year. We have to translate that into points, that’s the bottom line.”
Ponikarovsky left the game in the second period. DeBoer had no update on him after the game.
Stephen Gionta, who recorded an assist on the Volchenkov goal, has seven of his 10 points against the Atlantic Division.
Marek Zidlicky and Adam Henrique both reached games played milestones. Zidlicky played in his 600th game while Henrique skated in his 100th career contest.
Martin Brodeur, activated from injured reserve earlier today, dressed as the backup in tonight’s game.