NEW YORK – It was made sweeter by the fact that it knocked an arch-rival out of postseason contention.
But, make no mistake: The Rangers (24-17-4, 52 pts, 8th in East), in a 4-1 win over the Devils, merely did what they had to do. They collected two more points, putting themselves in a virtual tie for seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings with three games to go. Ottawa officially remains 7th with one game in hand.
“We weren’t thinking about last year,” said Ryan McDonagh when asked if the win was sweeter because it knocked the Devils out after New Jersey ended the Rangers season last May. “This is a totally different year, and we’re trying to fight for our lives and get ourselves an opportunity to get back to that stage again.”
The Rangers started quickly Sunday afternoon in front of a raucous crowd at Madison Square Garden. Ryan Callahan, standing behind the Devils’ net, pushed the puck in off Martin Brodeur’s skate just 34 seconds in. From there, the Rangers were off to the races, scoring again 12 minutes into the first, and adding insurance tallies in the second and third periods.
“It shows how important starts are,” said Callahan, whose team is 16-2-1 when scoring first. “We have three good starts and three wins. Shows that when we’re starting good, we have a good chance to win.”
It wasn’t perfect, especially early in the second period when the Devils got the first six shots of the period. But they did what they had to – they won a hockey game, they eliminated a rival, and they moved closer to clinching a playoff spot.
“We just focused on what we had to do, and that’s take two points,” said McDonagh, who assisted on the Rangers second goal when his point shot was deflected in by Derek Stepan. “We need to continue to stay in our spot and climb higher in the standings. We’re not really worried about other teams at this point in the year, we’re just worried about getting two points.”
“I think we’re playing the best hockey we’ve played all year,” said Callahan. “Now’s the time to do that with us battling for a playoff spot and hopefully heading into the playoffs.”
The Rangers moved three points clear of the Jets for the final playoff spot in the East. Winnipeg is the only team currently out of the playoff picture that can still get in. With three games remaining in each team’s season, the magic number for the Rangers to clinch a playoff spot is down to four.
They’re doing it now in a way most Rangers fans are unaccustomed to – in their last three games, the goals have flowed. They have scored 18 of them in those last three games. As a point of comparison, the Rangers had scored only 14 goals in their previous six games.
“It’s been an up-and-down year in terms of [scoring], said Brad Richards, who had his third consecutive multi-point game (4-3-7). “We wanted more consistency. It’s like anything. A team or an individual; these go in the net, it can help. You build a better atmosphere.”
“It starts with confidence,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (26 saves). “Guys see we can make plays because we do all the little things right, but then we have the confidence not to make the extra plays. A lot of time that’s the difference between scoring and not scoring. You have that extra second to look up and believe you can do it. It’s the right time to do it now, because we need it.”
The team is playing its best hockey of the season: 8-2-1 in their last 11, and winners of five of their last six. It’s never the best team that wins in the playoffs; it’s the hottest team. The Rangers have three games remaining in the regular season – all against teams already eliminated from postseason contention. They are quickly becoming the low-seeded team the big boys won’t want to face.
“I think we’re playing some of our more consistent hockey at an important time,” said Rangers coach John Tortorella. “Whether it’s because of where we are in the standings I don’t know. I just hope we stay with it.”
“You always want to peak this time of year,” said Taylor Pyatt, who wore the celebratory Broadway Hat after scoring the third Rangers goal – his first in 27 games. “Three games left, heading for the playoffs. Confidence seems to be back, there’s good energy here in the locker room. Everyone’s feeling good about themselves, so we have three games left to finish it up before playoffs.”
In 36 career games against Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, Lundqvist is 24-7-5, with a 1.75 GAA, .934 SV%, and five shutouts.
The Rangers are 22-9-3 against the Devils since the 2007-2008 season.
The much-maligned Brad Richards had only four multi-point efforts in the first 40 games of his season before his latest splurge.