NEW YORK -- Last May, a promising season ended abruptly for the New York Rangers when Adam Henrique scored 1:03 into overtime to give the New Jersey Devils a 3-2 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. The heartbreaking loss eliminated a team that finished the regular season atop the conference standings with 109 points.
The Rangers earned a small measure of revenge 11 months later, beating the Devils 4-1 Sunday at Madison Square Garden to dash New Jersey's playoff hopes and assure that their rivals across the Hudson River will not defend their Eastern Conference crown in 2013.
With the loss, the Devils are mathematically eliminated from a Stanley Cup Playoff spot. It's the first time in six years that one of the Stanley Cup finalists failed to make the playoffs the following season; both the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers missed the postseason in 2007 after playing for the Stanley Cup the year before.
Facing a desperate Devils team playing the second half of a back-to-back, the Rangers came out aggressively. Dictating the tone early, the impressive effort started and ended with team captain Ryan Callahan.
Callahan scored twice and linemate Derek Stepan added a goal and an assist and Henrik Lundqvist stopped 26 shots to lead New York. Taylor Pyatt also scored for the Rangers while Andrei Loktionov scored the Devils' lone goal and Martin Brodeur made 18 saves.
"I think our line has a lot of speed. We have to be on the forecheck to be successful," Callahan said. "It was their back-to-back, so you want to bang them as much as you can and wear them down. It usually pays off."
It certainly paid off early for the eighth-place Rangers, who now have 52 points, tying them with the seventh-place Ottawa Senators, who have a game in hand.
Fuelled by the forecheck of linemates Stepan and Carl Hagelin, Callahan opened the scoring off a Devils turnover just 34 seconds into the game. After batting the puck away from Marek Zidlicky behind the Devils' net, Hagelin was able to feed the Rangers captain, who tucked the puck into the net off Brodeur as the latter appeared to momentarily lose sight of the puck and could not recover in time.
"[Hagelin] makes a great play to me," Callahan said. "I know [Brodeur] is on the other side of the net, so I'm just trying to get it there. I get a lucky bounce off his skate."
Not content with their early 1-0 lead, the Rangers' top line came out just as aggressively on their next shift, with Callahan laying big hits on Peter Harrold and Anton Volchenkov, who made his return to the lineup following a four-game suspension. Pitted in a crucial division matchup, both teams increased the physical nature of their game, which quickly resulted in Ryan Carter and Darroll Powe being whistled for roughing barely three minutes after Callahan's goal, with Carter receiving an extra roughing minor.
That nastiness continued throughout the period when Hagelin was called for roughing at 7:36, a penalty that was negated when Matt D'Agostini was whistled for holding Dan Girardi's stick shortly after the Rangers defenseman knocked him down with a punishing hit.
Just one minute after D'Agostini finished serving his two minutes, Stepan doubled New York’s lead when he tipped a point shot from Ryan McDonagh past Brodeur with eight minutes remaining in the opening period.
In a sign of thing to come, the Devils' frustrations appeared to boil over, as New Jersey's bench was assessed a minor for unsportsmanlike conduct with 5:18 remaining and Carter already off for tripping. The Devils killed off both penalties and held the Rangers to just two shots on four first-period power plays that spanned almost seven minutes.
The contest tightened up in the second as both teams began trading quality scoring chances. But the Rangers effectively took over the game on an opportunistic play that typified the tone Callahan set early. With 8:04 remaining in the second, Brad Richards pounced on Volchenkov's clearing attempt and fed the puck to Pyatt, who beat Brodeur high to the glove side to give the Rangers a commanding 3-0 lead.
"If they [the Devils] score the next one, I think it changes the complexion of the game. We talked about how the next goal is a big one," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "Good for [Pyatt], he's done a lot of work along the boards. He hadn't been playing much, but that line is playing well and adding some offense."
Richards' assist on the goal was another big play from the center, who came into the game with five points in his previous two games after notching his first career hat trick Friday in Buffalo.
"My game hasn't been that much different. Sometimes you get a little bounce here and there and you just kind of take off and feel better about yourself," said Richards, who had one point in six games before his recent outburst. "It's what I expect from myself. For some reason, it took a while."
The Devils got an opportunity to mount a comeback when Callahan was whistled for tripping Henrik Tallinder 2:53 into the third. But New Jersey's 22nd-ranked power play failed to mount much of an attack before Patrik Elias earned the team's second unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty of the afternoon.
"There was frustration. It's obviously not the way you want to go out. But that's how it ends for us," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who received a game-misconduct penalty with 16 seconds remaining in regulation. "It hasn't sunk in. I think you don't want to think about it until it's actually a reality. No other word but disappointment.”
Callahan crushed New Jersey's playoff hopes when he scored his second goal of the game shortly after serving his penalty. Like his first of the game, the goal came from in close, as Brodeur dove to poke the puck away from him, but Callahan managed to flip the puck over the prone goaltender and into the net.
Loktionov replied on a delayed-penalty call with 6:30 remaining, but the game was well in hand by then.
Shortly after eliminating their division rival from playoff contention, the Rangers weren't talking about earning their revenge against the Devils. They were instead focused on their remaining three games, the last of which will be played against New Jersey at MSG on April 27.
"We're playing with confidence. That’s a huge part of this game, playing with confidence," Callahan said. "We seem to be finding our game at the right time. It's another two points. We have to take it and move on."