Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta scored 39 seconds apart in the third period to lift the surging Devils to a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Rangers on Sunday night in a game rife with playoff implications.
The tense contest featured the kind of hard hits and momentum shifts that mark playoff hockey.
"That was a playoff atmosphere," Devils coach Lou Lamoriello said.
Rangers coach Tom Renney agreed.
"It was real intense," he said. "It was a hard working, hard hitting game. It was a fun game."
The teams concluded the season series with four wins each and could meet again in the opening round. That's the matchup at the moment with the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers third in the Eastern Conference and the streaking Devils sixth.
The showdown might have to wait, if the Devils continue to climb in the standings.
Sergei Brylin also scored for the Devils and Martin Brodeur made 24 saves to help New Jersey extend its winning streak to seven. The victory gave the Devils 93 points, pulling them within two of the fifth-place Philadelphia Flyers.
"We're staying patient," Gionta said. "We're staying on an even keel and waiting for our chances."
Time was running out when Gomez got his chance.
With New Jersey down 2-1 in the third, Gomez tied the game at 11:33 as he split the Rangers defense pair of Sandis Ozolinsh and Jason Strudwick to whip a backhander past Kevin Weekes. The goal was the fourth in the last three games for Gomez.
"I got a little lucky," Gomez said. "I just found a hole and I took it."
Gionta scored the winner on the power play as he knocked in Jamie Langenbrunner's centering feed from behind the net. The goal extended Gionta's scoring streak to 11 games (8 goals, 7 assists).
"It was a short-side play." Gionta said. "Langenbrunner found me in front."
The Rangers, who had won three in a row, got goals from Blair Betts and Ozolinsh while Weekes made 23 saves.
"Even if we had gotten to overtime and gotten a point out of it, it would have been more palatable," Weekes said. "This is a bitter pill to swallow. We had two points and came out with nothing to show for it."
The Rangers took a 2-1 lead on second-period goals by Betts and Ozolinsh.
The turning point in that period came at 3:32 when the Rangers Ryan Hollweg got a 5-minute charging penalty. The Rangers weathered the major without giving up a goal as Weekes made big stops on Gionta, Gomez and John Madden.
Momentum swung in New York's favor after the penalty kill.
Betts pulled the Rangers even at 13:54. Jason Ward gloved down a clearing attempt by Devils defenseman Colin White and fed the puck to Betts for the tying goal.
Ozolinsh gave the Rangers the lead with a power-play score at 15:46 as he cheated in from the point. Jaromir Jagr hit the cutting defenseman with a pass that glanced off his stick shaft and knuckled past Brodeur.
In the third, Martin Straka hit the post with 12 minutes remaining with a shot that would have given the Rangers a two goal lead. That miss ultimately proved costly.
Brylin bounced back from a hard hit in the opening minutes to score the only goal of the first period. Brylin was checked face-first into the side boards by Hollweg. Brylin was bleeding heavily as he left the ice and needed stitches over his left eye.
He returned in time to score a power-play goal at 13:46, seconds after Brodeur stopped Fedor Tyutin on a breakaway.
The goal unfolded with Zach Parise making a cross-ice pass to Paul Martin who unloaded a slapshot toward the Rangers net. Brylin deflected the puck past Weekes who was screened by the Devils' Erik Rasmussen.
Notes: Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist missed a fourth straight game with a hip injury. ...The Rangers recalled defenseman Thomas Pock from Hartford (AHL). ... Jagr lost his edge late in the second period and rolled into linesman Thor Nelson who had to be helped off the ice. The game continued with only three officials. ...The sellout was the Devils fourth this season and second with the Rangers as the opponent.