Takeaways, as Rangers fall to Devils in potential playoff preview.


Before we dive in here, remember this contest was to see who has to travel 35 minutes across the Hudson River one less time than the other, not for the season. T

hat home ice distinction, should these two longtime rivals meet up in the postseason, will deservedly go to the New Jersey Devils(47-20-8, 102 points), who ousted the New York Rangers(44-2-10, 98 points) 2-1 in a spirited battle at the Prudential Center on Thursday.

The victory clinches the regular season series win for the Devils and gives them a four-point lead over the Blueshirts for second place in the Metropolitan Division standings with seven games remaining, as they’ll now set their sights on trying to catch the first-place Carolina Hurricanes(47-18-9,103 points) who have a game in hand and a favorable schedule down the stretch making that unlikely although with their 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday, not impossible.

New Jersey knows New York is who they’re prone to face in round one, so they spent Wednesday’s practice focusing on preparing specifically for their tilt instead of running their usual drills. The Rangers did the same, setting the scene for an enticing preview of what could come two and a half weeks from now.

If the Rangers were the tortoise in the first period, the Devils were the hair, as New Jersey dictated with their speed, aggressive forecheck, positioning, and efficient puck movement through the neutral zone.

The siege resulted in a quick strike on the scoreboard, as Dougie Hamilton sent a muffin towards the net that Erik Haula perfectly tapped in at the 5:17 mark for a 1-0 New Jersey lead, which could’ve happened earlier if not for the brilliance of Igor Shesterkin, who made 12 of his 29 stops in the opening frame, and looks like his Vezina self again in goal for New York.

The Rangers’ turnover chain continued as defensemen were hemmed in their zone and couldn’t clear pucks cleanly, which ultimately resulted in New Jersey doubling their lead later in the frame when Timo Meier blasted a power-play one-timer past Shesterkin.

As Henrik Lundqvist brilliantly said on MSG network, “You play against great teams, you have to take away their biggest strength. For the Devils, it’s their speed, and the Rangers need to hit more and slow them down.”

It took the Blueshirts some time to neutralize it, but once they did, the game began to shift in their favor, proving if they could hither stride quicker, should the opponent be these guys when the playoffs start on April 17th, they’ll be the ones in front on the scoreboard with their highly-skilled players taking advantage.

They started to make safer plays, cycle down low, and test Vitek Vanecek, who matched Shesterkin with some key saves down the stretch on Vincent Trocheck near the side of the net, and Vladimir Tarasenko in the slot, aided by defenseman Ryan Graves’s goal-saving swipe.

However, the Rangers did make a dent in his armor when they netted their man-advantage tally when a  Graves clearing attempt was inadvertently deflected to Mika Zibanejad, who fed Chris Kreider for the goal at 13:24 of the second period, pulling them within one.

The remainder of the contest was spent in the trenches reminiscent of last Thursday’s 2-1 New York road win at Carolina, who play a similar deceptive style as New Jersey, sans the fact the Rangers were playing from behind.

For all the mistakes the Rangers made in the first period and over the next two, although they played better, the Devils couldn’t capitalize on their opportunities allowing New York to hang around. Yet, when push came to shove, the Rangers couldn’t bury the equalizer as New Jersey blocked shots, got sticks in lanes of their east-west passes, and received the stops they needed from Vanecek, who made 24 saves on 25 shots to secure the victory.

Last season, the Rangers used their final few games to give their star players a rest. Still, they can’t experience that luxury this year due to cap constraints and already down star defenseman Ryan Lindgren until the season’s final week.

When you consider injuries are sure to occur throughout the postseason, everyone must remain healthy, which the Devils could agree with, for they missed winger Nathan Bastian. That wasn’t a certainty in this one, as New York lost Ben Harpur for a bit in the first period. Still, he returned and played the rest alongside Niko Mikkola, the Blueshirts’ best skater, and recorded three shots on goal, three hits, two blocks, and a takeaway in 21:46 of ice time.

BLS COMMENT OF THE NIGHT: “This was a very close game.  The Devils came out early and caught the Rangers flatfooted.  Then the Good guys started playing playoff-style hockey and came close…but they couldn’t get the equalizer…A good warm-up for round 1.  I am not discouraged.” -Steve Paulus