NEWARK, N.J. -- Perhaps New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer said it best immediately following his team's 6-2 victory against the Florida Panthers at Prudential Center on Saturday that kept their slim Stanley Cup Playoff hopes alive.
The coach was proud of the fact his team was able to rally after trailing by two and win a second straight for the first time in almost a month, yet he couldn't help but turn his attention to a more pressing issue with four regular-season games remaining and the Devils trailing the eighth-place New York Rangers by six points in the Eastern Conference.
"This is a must win [Sunday]," DeBoer said, referring to the matchup with the rival Rangers at Madison Square Garden. "That will be a man's game. They've got an opportunity to close us out, and I'm sure they're going to relish that, and we'll have to get off the bus and be ready to compete."
The Devils (17-17-10, 44 points) will play New York twice at Madison Square Garden, on Sunday and next Saturday. Sandwiched are home games against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday and Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday.
"If we don't beat [the Rangers], we're done, so it's huge," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said of Sunday's game. "It's big for us. Even if we win all our games our chances (of making the playoffs) are low."
Despite all that, the Devils are holding out hope they'll have an opportunity to defend their conference championship.
"What else are you going to do … we have to play these last four games, so might as well win them," forward Patrik Elias said. "Nothing changes for us (against the Rangers). It's an important game, but we know how they play. They have some new guys on the team, and it seems like they're going pretty well, so we'll have to play a tight game."
After spotting the Panthers a two-goal lead eight minutes into the first period, the Devils scored six unanswered goals and yielded six shots the remainder of the game. The six goals were the most by the Devils this season and coincided with Ilya Kovalchuk's return.
Though he didn't register a point, Kovalchuk, who was removed from injured reserve earlier in the day after missing 11 straight with a right-shoulder injury, remained involved and creative while earning a team-high 22:43 of ice time on a line with center Adam Henrique and left wing Dainius Zubrus.
"No problem. No pain. But a minus-1 [rating]," Kovalchuk said. "I worry about that … you don't want to be minus when team wins 6-2. But we scored goals, there was a lot of excitement and lot of smiling, so can't do any better."
Devils forward David Clarkson, who finished with a game-high eight shots and one huge hit on Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell in the offensive end at 12:48 of the first period that seemed to ignite the team, said he was glad to see Kovalchuk back in the lineup.
"What he brings to this locker room and the way he plays out there was missed," Clarkson said. "Having him back definitely gave us a boost in this locker room. He's one of the best teammates I've ever played with in my career, so anytime you have a guy like that, just his presence in here is huge."
The Devils received a pair of goals by Elias, and single scores from Clarkson, Zubrus, Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta. Brodeur, who stopped Quinton Howden on a penalty shot early in the third, earned his 12th victory of the season with 11 saves.
Brodeur, who had an assist on Elias' first goal, has stopped eight of 11 career penalty shots.
The Devils are 11-3-2 when Kovalchuk and Brodeur are in the lineup together this season. The victory was the fourth for the Devils in 26 games when allowing the opening goal.
The Panthers (13-25-6, 32 points), eliminated from playoff contention, have lost five straight and been outscored 27-8 over that stretch.
Trailing 2-0, DeBoer called a timeout and his team responded with five straight goals in the second period.
"I don't remember what I said," DeBoer said "Basically, it was to play our game. That wasn't what we were about, giving odd-man rushes and turning the puck over. When we play that game, we get in trouble. There are no excuses for poor starts, and to the players' credit, they got the job done."
Clarkson, who played a spirited game throughout, snapped a 2-2 tie when he scored his team-leading 14th goal of the season 10:45 into the second. Travis Zajac and Clarkson found themselves 2-on-1 against Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov low in the crease before Zajac fed Clarkson, who beat goalie Jacob Markstrom on the short-side post.
"That was the most fun I've had in a game in a while," Clarkson said. "It seemed like we weren't chasing the puck, we were making plays and skating it out of our zone. Hopefully, [Saturday's] effort was one that gives us a boost for these next four games."
Carter extended the lead to 4-2 when he battled for a puck in the left-wing corner, spun away from defender Mike Weaver and skated to the left post before jamming home his own rebound at 14:11. Carter assisted linemate Gionta to give the Devils a 5-2 edge a little over three minutes later when the latter's wrist shot from the top of the left circle eluded Markstrom, who had been pulled in two of his previous three starts.
Howden was awarded his penalty shot 39 seconds into the third period after being hooked from behind by Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky, but Brodeur got the best of the 21-year-old rookie when he denied a quick snap shot from between the circles with his right pad. It was Brodeur's second denial of a penalty shot this season, the first coming April 10.
Zubrus gave New Jersey a 6-2 lead when he redirected a blast from the right point by Adam Larsson 10:28 into the third. The goal was the second of the season for Zubrus, his first since Jan. 27.
Elias scored his second goal of the game 2:09 into the second period to pull his team even, 2-2. After receiving a pass from Clarkson at the left hash, Elias took a quick wrist shot that beat Markstrom to the short side. Zajac made the play possible when he forced a turnover at the right point and quickly dished to Clarkson in the right circle. It was the first two-goal game for Elias since Dec. 17, 2011, a 5-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
Elias barely missed at recording his first hat trick since April 1, 2011 when he moved in tight on Markstrom with just under 12 minutes left in the second but was denied by a splendid left-pad save.
"It felt good to score a pair, and I had another chance right after that (for the hat trick) and he made great save," Elias said.
Elias opened the scoring for the Devils with a power-play goal at 14:22. After gathering a pass from Peter Harrold in the neutral zone, Elias skated past three Florida players before unleashing a wrist shot from between the circles that beat Markstrom to the short side. Brodeur notched his second assist of the season, the 42nd of his career.
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