Rangers, Devils Enter Critical Battle

When the season began, most thought the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils would battle for playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

No one thought it would be for a bottom seed.

The 2012 Eastern Conference Finalists square off tonight at the Prudential Center with a playoff position on the line. The Devils lead the Rangers by two points,  but have one less regulation win. A Rangers win would propel them into eighth place and knock the Devils to ninth.

It would be the first time this season New Jersey sat outside of the top eight teams in the conference.

“It’s important for sure. It’s a four-point game, like every division game,” right wing Ilya Kovalchuk told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “If you look at the standings now, it’s a dogfight here. We’re (three points) away from ninth place and (four points) away from fifth. But that’s how it will be until the end of the year and every game is a big game. It doesn’t matter who you play against. But, for sure, there will be a little extra motivation tomorrow with the playoffs last year and the rivalry and the fans. I think we’re all excited.”

This is the second meeting between the Rangers and Devils. New Jersey won the first matchup, 3-1, on February 5 at the Prudential Center. The Devils struck twice in the first period, with Adam Henrique and David Clarkson giving New Jersey a 2-0 lead after the opening period. Clarkson pushed the advantage to three with another score in the third period. Chris Kreider scored New York’s lone goal.

Martin Brodeur stopped 24 of 25 shots in the win. Henrik Lundqvist made 19 saves in the loss.

New Jersey’s mediocre second half of the season knocked them from the top of the conference standings to a dangerously close exit out of the playoff picture. New Jersey has gone 3-7-2 in its last 12 games, and has five wins in the last 15 contests. They enter tonight tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets for sixth in the conference.

A major reason for that slide is New Jersey’s lack of goal scoring. During this stretch, the Devils have scored two goals 11 times and one in five of those contests.

That was a problem again in a 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens Saturday. New Jersey received one goal – Peter Harrold’s power-play tally in the second period – despite outshooting Montreal, 33-22. That included a 26-13 margin over the final two periods. A turnover by Marek Zidlicky led to Tomas Plekanec’s game-winning goal, a deflection that went past the stick of Johan Hedberg in the third period.

The slide also coincided with Brodeur’s back injury. The Devils goalie has not played since  February 21 in Washington. Before the injury, New Jersey went 10-3-4 and sat at the top of the conference. He practiced with the team Monday, and could dress as the backup for tonight’s game.

Hedberg will make his 13th consecutive start for the Devils. In 19 games against the Rangers, Hedberg is 12-5-0 with a 2.05 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and two shutouts.

The Rangers snapped a three-game losing streak last night, defeating the Carolina Hurricanes, 2-1, in a shootout at Madison Square Garden. Eric Staal and Derek Stepan traded goals through regulation and overtime. It was the fourth straight game the Rangers scored one or fewer goals during regulation. New York gained the extra point in the shootout, with Rick Nash and J.T. Miller beating Canes goalie Dan Ellis. Lundqvist blanked Carolina in the shootout for the win.

Like their rivals, the Rangers have struggled with goal scoring. New York ranks 27th in the league with 2.39 goals-per-game, and have scored two or fewer goals in six of its last seven games.

Nash leads New York with 23 points (9g, 14a) in 24 games. He’s the team leader in both goals and assists, and is the only player to crack the 20-point plateau.

The Devils have played well within the division this season, winning eight of its 13 games against Atlantic Division opponents.

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