Patrik Elias barely cracked a smile. Martin Brodeur was all business. It was tough to find anyone sticking out their chests because they could now claim they were in 28th place, and coach Jacques Lemaire offered a very practical reason for the even-keeled attitude.
"(It's) just for today," Lemaire said.
An organization steeped in two decades of success isn't going to pop champagne because the team moved one point ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and into a tie with the New York Islanders, who have two fewer wins. The Devils improving to 8-1-1 in their last 10 by beating their cross-river rivals was universally considered by the players as just another victory.
There was no fantastical talk about getting into the playoff race or gloating about beating their arch-enemies. Instead, the conversation was all about continuing to improve.
"If we're doing well, we'll start catching up to teams and putting them behind us," said Brodeur, who made 25 saves. "It's going to be a long process, but if we keep what's going on right now going, we'll see where it brings us."
Elias was asked if he'd look at the standings now that the Devils weren't at the bottom of them anymore.
"No, still got 30 games-plus left, so no," Elias said emphatically. "We'll look at it after we have no more games."
The Devils jumped out to an early 1-0 lead that silenced the fans at Madison Square Garden. Ilya Kovalchuk picked up a drop pass from Dainius Zubrus and fired a wrist shot from the right wing that beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was pulled late in the second period after allowing three goals on 12 shots.
Kovalchuk used Rangers defenseman Michael Sauer, who deflected the shot ever so slightly, as a screen to score his 15th of the season.
"We were talking about it, to get a good start and get ourselves a lead," Kovalchuk said. "We did it. It was a great team effort and Marty played unbelievably."
Zubrus made it 2-0 midway through the second period with the first of two goals Lundqvist would like back. Defenseman Henrik Tallinder pushed the Rangers defense back with a strong rush before feeding Zubrus above the right circle. His long slap shot squeezed through Lundqvist and barely trickled over the goal line.
Brian Rolston made it 3-0 with a shot from near the blue line that Lundqvist thought he was going to stop with his blocker but didn't. Martin Biron came on in relief and made six saves, including a rocket of a one-timer by Kovalchuk just seconds after coming off the bench.
That save was the start of a furious comeback by the Rangers. Ryan Callahan beat Brodeur from an awful angle with 3:35 left in the second period to make it 3-1. Vaclav Prospal, playing in his first game this season after recovering from right knee surgery during the offseason, made it 3-2 when his cross-ice pass through the slot hit Tallinder's stick during a 5-on-3 power play and bounced through Brodeur just 2:21 into the third period.
That goal set the stage for a Rangers assault that featured two power-play chances and climaxed with Brandon Dubinsky hitting the post in the final second. In the end, though, it was just too deep of a hole for the Rangers.
"We fell behind right away but we responded well," Prospal said. "But you can't fall behind 3-0 against a team like that, especially the way they've been playing since switching coaches."
The Devils are 9-6-1 since Lemaire took over for John MacLean on Dec. 23.
Late penalties by Colin White and Nick Palmieri tested the Devils' penalty-killers, who came through with flying colors.
"That was not easy," Lemaire said. "We had the good start. I think we played well. The thing is, the time we started to get penalties, which didn't help. But I felt the guys didn't drop as a team. Guys still had poise and did what they had to do and got a break at the end."
"It was frustrating, that's for sure," Dubinsky said. "It was a tough break, but we can't spot them a 3-0 lead. We have to find a way to cash in on a couple opportunities and get the lead and not fall down 3-0."
Dubinsky was staring at an empty net with the Rangers trailing 1-0 in the final seconds of the first period, but pushed the puck off the crossbar. After three months of everything imaginable going against the Devils, they're starting to get some much-needed breaks.
"Bounces do come with the way you're playing," Rolston said. "They definitely went our way a couple times tonight. I think we had a lot of good opportunities that went our way too. The Rangers are a great hockey team and they're tough to get opportunities against. We just hung in there tonight."
The Rangers will carry a three-game losing streak to Montreal on Saturday, while the Devils host the Florida Panthers on Friday as they continue to play for the one thing they've had for so long in New Jersey.
"It's about pride," Tallinder said. "We played really poorly in the first half. Now it comes down to pride."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
|Ilya Kovalchuk (15) ASST: Dainius Zubrus (11)|
1 - 0 NJD
|Dainius Zubrus (9) ASST: Henrik Tallinder (7)|
2 - 0 NJD
|Brian Rolston (7) ASST: Patrik Elias (26)|
3 - 0 NJD
|Ryan Callahan (12) ASST: Artem Anisimov (17)|
3 - 1 NJD
|PPG - Vinny Prospal (1) ASST: Mats Zuccarello (10), Marian Gaborik (17)|
3 - 2 NJD
|Marc Staal Tripping against Dainius Zubrus|
|Brandon Prust Hi-sticking against Ilya Kovalchuk|
|Tim Sestito Roughing against Ryan Callahan|
|Mattias Tedenby Hooking against Michael Sauer|
|Sean Avery Fighting against David Clarkson|
|David Clarkson Fighting against Sean Avery|
|Dainius Zubrus Interference - Goalkeeper against Martin Biron|
|Anton Volchenkov Delaying Game - Puck over glass|
|Michael Del Zotto Tripping against Patrik Elias|
|Colin White Roughing against Sean Avery|
|Nick Palmieri Hooking against Artem Anisimov|