It's not often that a game starts with three concurrent fights at the puck drop, but that's what happened Monday night at Madison Square Garden as the New York Rangers hosted the New Jersey Devils, and coach John Tortorella wasn't too pleased about it. What he was enthused about was how the Rangers responded to the fighting group Devils coach Peter DeBoer threw out there, and how his squad went about playing its game en route to a 4-2 victory. If the win didn't feel good enough, being the Eastern Conference's first team to clinch the playoffs did.
It goes without saying that the Devils and Rangers hate each other. According to Henrik Lundqvist in the postgame (via the NY Daily News' Pat Leonard), Tortorella wasn't thrilled about the lineup DeBoer was beginning with, and the war began right at the opening faceoff. The Devils' coach put out his fighting/checking line to begin the game, so Tortorella was forced to throw his out there as well (and even inserted Stu Bickel at center to combat it all). And with that came the fireworks: Ryan Carter fought Bickel, Eric Boulton fought Mike Rupp and Brandon Prust took on Cam Janssen.
The bouts gave the Rangers some good life early, but their start was really reminiscient to the style they've played for most of the year. The Devils seemed to play out of their comfort zone/game plan, and the Rangers took advantage, with Brandon Dubinsky cashing in 1:11 into the first period for a goal on a four-on-two (because a few Devils were caught in the Rangers' zone throwing checks). New York controlled the flow in the first period, outshooting their opponents 13-6.
The Rangers have struggled lately to extend leads, playing a lot of close games with little room for error. So, 33 seconds in Dan Girardi took a point shot that lifted past Martin Brodeur. Lundqvist (and Martin Brodeur) had his brilliant moments. But, he also had two of his uglier one, and they came on the goals he gave up. About five minutes later the Devils cut the deficit to one on a sharp-angle goal that beat Lundqvist above the right shoulder by Patrik Elias.
But the Rangers -- probably a credit to the building and learning from their last loss, 4-1, to the Devils. -- stayed composed, and they took advantage of a penalty to make it 3-1. Mats Zuccarello, who has made a huge impact on the power play, tucked in the rebound on Ryan Callahan's shot. Yet the Devils didn't relent, as Petr Sykora beat Lundqvist again on a sharp-angled shot that was worse than the first one.
The Rangers doubled up their advantage late in the third -- at 18:50 -- as Derek Stepan converted with a great deflection just after a power play ended. New York killed off three New Jersey power plays, and went 1-for-3 on their own. They finished the game with a 27-22 shot edge, and even more notable was the 41-23 hits advantage.
This was a game in which the Devils seemed a little out of sorts, and the Rangers really imposed their style on them. New Jersey is 41-27-5 on the year and will travel to Ottawa for a game tomorrow night. The Rangers, 45-20-7, will battle the Detroit Red Wings at home on Wednesday, which should be another playoff-like test for them.