NEW YORK (AP) - Brandon Dubinsky scored shortly after a fight-filled opening faceoff, and the New York Rangers became the first Eastern Conference team to earn a playoff spot by beating the New Jersey Devils 4-2 on Monday night.
Three fights broke out at the outset and that seemed to jump-start the Rangers, who had lost two straight and five of seven as their once commanding lead in the East dwindled to almost nothing.
Defenseman Dan Girardi scored in the first minute of the second period, and Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan added goals for the Rangers, who lead the Pittsburgh Penguins by three points. New York (45-20-7) has 10 games remaining. Pittsburgh has 11 to play, including one against the Rangers.
Henrik Lundqvist stopped 20 shots and got the Rangers back on track after home losses to Colorado and Pittsburgh. New York, which has two games remaining on a seven-game homestand, went 3-2-1 against New Jersey in the season series.
The Rangers have often struggled until the final days to get into the playoffs, but now they have joined Western Conference-leading St. Louis as the only teams to qualify this season.
Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora had goals, and Martin Brodeur made 23 saves for the Devils, who are sixth in the East.
After the last meeting between the teams on March 6, some Rangers said the Devils played as though they were trying to kill them. New York was determined from the start to ensure that wouldn't happen again.
Before the puck dropped for the opening faceoff, it was already clear that it wouldn't be a calm beginning as players jousted and jabbed with their counterparts next to them.
Gloves and sticks hit the ice about the same time as the puck, and six of the 10 skaters squared off to fight. On either side of the big faceoff circle in the middle, New Jersey's Cam Janssen and Eric Boulton fought New York's Brandon Prust and Mike Rupp. While inside the Devils' zone, Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel traded blows with Ryan Carter. Carter got in the better shots, but fell to the ice first and was already bleeding when he went down. It got worse when Bickel fell onto him and delivered more shots that left several blood spots on the ice that had to be scraped and shoveled once order was restored.
Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador tried to come to Carter's aid by grabbing Bickel. Salvador was given a 10-minute misconduct, and ended up spending 12 minutes in the penalty box in the period - including a roughing penalty at 12:45.
New York coach John Tortorella could be seen yelling at the New Jersey bench before play resumed. When it did, his club struck first.
The Rangers took a 1-0 lead for the second straight game when Dubinsky scored his first in seven contests just 1:11 in. With the crowd still fired up from the early fisticuffs, Dubinsky gave the fans something to really cheer about. Derek Stepan shoved the puck across the high slot to Dubinsky, who snapped in his eighth goal.
New York bottled up the Devils in the period and held them to six shots. The Rangers struck quickly again at the start of the second to double the lead.
Carl Hagelin sent a pass across the full length of the New Jersey zone to Girardi, who let go a change-up of a shot that sailed left. Brodeur stuck out his stick, and the puck clipped the shift and deflected in just under the crossbar at 33 seconds. It was Girardi's fifth of the season and first since Jan. 17 - a span of 27 games.
The Devils got that one back 4:30 later when Elias took the puck at the left post and managed to find a sliver of space over Lundqvist's right shoulder and under the crossbar for his 25th goal.
New York restored its two-goal lead at 7:33 when Zuccarello scored for the second straight game. It was the Rangers' first power-play goal in four games and just their sixth in 19 contests - covering 55 opportunities.
But the Devils answered again at 11:08 when Sykora netted his 17th with an unscreened shot from Lundqvist's right.
Stepan sealed it by scoring his 16th of the season with 1:10 left in the game.
NOTES: It is Elias' seventh NHL season with at least 25 goals, and first since the 2008-09 season. He has 12 goals and 35 points in his last 34 games. ... The Devils signed goalie prospect Scott Wedgewood to an entry-level contract. ... The Rangers have 101 wins over the Devils. ... Thirteen of the past 17 meetings between the clubs have been decided by two goals or fewer.