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Rangers clinch playoff spot with win over Devils

by Dave Lozo
NEW YORK -- When they clinched their spot in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the New York Rangers did so while watching their televisions late at night after winning their final regular-season game against the New Jersey Devils during the afternoon. The Rangers required a loss by the Carolina Hurricanes in their finale to the capture the No. 8 seed, and Tampa Bay Lightning provided the knock-out punch.

One year later, the only thing that's similar about the Rangers wrapping up a spot in the 2012 playoffs is it came at the expense of the Devils at Madison Square Garden.

Four players scored goals and Henrik Lundqvist made 20 saves as the Rangers became the first team in the Eastern Conference to punch its postseason ticket with a 4-2 victory against their Atlantic Division rivals Monday night.

The Rangers didn’t learn their playoff fate in 2010 until a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the regular-season finale sent them home. This time around, the Rangers took care of business with 20 days before the end of the season.

"It's pretty cool," said defenseman Dan Girardi, who scored his fifth of the season Monday. "Me and Marc (Staal) were talking about that. It's our first time since I've been here, in six years, that we clinched this early. It's nice. It's a nice feeling knowing you'll be in the playoffs, but now it's a matter of staying up top and trying to create some space up top. It's a different feeling for us. We have to handle it the right way."

The win pushed the Rangers three points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have played one fewer game, for the East's top spot with 10 games left on the schedule.

"It's definitely a foreign feeling, that it's not coming down to the last day," said Brandon Dubinsky, who scored 1:11 into the game to give the Rangers a lead they would not relinquish. "We've worked really hard all year for this opportunity. Listen, I think we said from the get-go that the playoffs were not our goal. We want home-ice advantage. We want to get in a good spot and put ourselves in a good position going into the playoffs.

"More importantly, we want to be trying to play our best hockey going in. We got 10 games down the stretch to fine-tune things and make sure we're ready for that."

The openly discussed hatred between the Rangers and Devils manifested itself 3 seconds into the contest with a six-man brawl off the opening faceoff.

The Rangers' Mike Rupp, Brandon Prust and Stu Bickel fought Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen and Ryan Carter, respectively, in a scene out of "Slap Shot" that played out to the delight of 18,200 fans. Carter left the ice bloodied after his bout, and Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador received a 10-minute misconduct for trying to pull Bickel off Carter after the pair fell to the ice and Bickel continued to throw punches.

As the visiting team, the Devils must declare their lineup first. The Rangers countered with their tough guys and had Dubinsky, a forward, lined up as a defenseman to allow Bickel to move up to forward.

Rangers coach John Tortorella was shown by NBCSN cameras shouting in the direction of Devils coach Peter DeBoer after the fracas, although Tortorella wouldn't address the incident after the game.

"We're not going into the game saying, 'We've got to go and send a message.' We know what our team is about," Rupp said. "We all know the (visiting) team gets first dibs on who their starting lineup is. It's just a response to that. If they want to play that way, and think it will go really well that way, if they want to play an open game, I think we're built well in that area, too."

Sixty-eight seconds later, Dubinsky beat Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur on a 4-on-2 rush to make it 1-0. Derek Stepan, who scored the Rangers' fourth goal late in the third period, set up Dubinsky after he fanned on his initial pass and stayed with the loose puck.

Tortorella said the fights that led to the goal gave his team "juice." Dubinsky had a similar thought.

"Kudos to our guys stepping up. It takes big (hearts) to do that," Dubinsky said. "We respect each and every guy that does that job. I'm glad the way we responded and we're able to get that early one."

Devils forward Patrik Elias also credited the fights for helping the Rangers strike first, but he looked at it more as causing a tactical mistake leading up to the goal.

With the puck deep in the Rangers zone, Elias tried to lay a big hit on Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. Elias connected, but Callahan's break-out pass sprung Stepan on the 4-on-2 that led to the goal.

"I was excited to play tonight -- maybe too much," Elias said. "The next shift after (the fights), instead of playing it smart position-wise, I'm going to go and run after their guy to finish a check and get involved physically and that gave them a 4-on-2 up the ice and cost us a goal. Sometimes, yeah, it's great to see that and emotions are high, but you have to kind of take a deep breath and a step back and play the way you want to play."

The game settled down after that, with Girardi making it 2-0 with a goal 33 seconds into the second period when his long shot bounced off Brodeur and in the net. Elias scored his 25th of the season 4:30 later to make it 2-1, but a boarding penalty by Boulton led to Mats Zuccarello's second goal of the season 2:30 later, all of which have come since he was recalled from the AHL three games ago.

Petr Sykora made it a one-goal game entering the third period by beating Lundqvist from a sharp angle at 11:08, but the Devils were held in check the rest of the way. Stepan's deflection of a Dubinsky shot with 1:10 left in the third period put the game away and cemented the Rangers' spot in the postseason.

Tortorella, who said he wasn't aware the Rangers clinched a playoff berth until five minutes before meeting with the media afterward, said all that matters to him is seeing improvement in his team as the regular season winds down.

"I just want us to continue to play and continue to try to improve as a hockey club, and try to be playing our best hockey when we go into that last week," Tortorella said. "I think these last couple weeks are very important. We still have a lot of things to work on."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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