Devils hone in on Rangers, first playoff berth in six years
While the Devils (42-28-9) zero in on clinching their first postseason berth since the 2011-12 season, the Rangers (34-36-9) play out the string, set to miss the playoffs for only the second time in 13 years.
“I think we’re excited about it,” Devils coach John Hynes said of a likely return to the playoffs next week. “But the big thing — we’ve talked about it, too — it’s about our game. Whether we’re up seven or three points (in the standings), you can’t get too wrapped up in those situations.”
Certainly, the Devils put all distractions aside during an impressive finish to the regular season. New Jersey is 5-0-1 in its last six games and 8-2-1 since March 10.
With three games left on the schedule, the Devils can clinch a playoff spot as early as Tuesday night depending on what they and the ninth-place Florida Panthers do in their respective games.
“We always say that every game is the most important game of the season,” offered Devils rookie Nico Hischier, who scored his 19th goal in Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. “It’s not just me that wants it. Every single guy in here wants these wins and knows every game is two huge points.”
During the weekend, the Devils admittedly were not at their best in beating two of the league’s weaker teams — the Islanders and the Canadiens — yet they still took all four points.
Taylor Hall continued his push for Hart Trophy consideration by extending his point-scoring streak to eight games, finishing the weekend sweep with the game-winning short-handed goal late in the third period in Montreal.
“He’s been our MVP all year long, and the best player in the league in my opinion,” teammate Brian Boyle said of Hall, who has 37 goals and 89 points this season.
There’s no playoff or MVP talk for the first time in a long time with the Rangers this year. Sabotaged by poor play and then gutted by a series of trades of key veteran players, the Rangers barely resemble the team that reached three Eastern Conference finals since 2012, not to mention the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
Yet the Rangers played hard down the stretch with a young roster that is absent two more experienced players on Tuesday. Forwards Jesper Fast and Mats Zuccarello are both ruled out for the game — Fast with a groin injury, Zuccarello with an undisclosed injury after blocking a series of shots recently.
“We have a lot of young, talented players. It’s been fun to play with them,” Rangers alternate captain Marc Staal said. “With our situation and with what happened, there are a few older guys here, and it’s fun for us to feel the energy of the younger players, and their excitement coming to the rink.”
The Rangers, who are 2-4-2 in their last eight games, beat the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 in their most recent game on Saturday. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist made 40 saves in the win, the seventh time this season he had that many.
“We’re just trying to finish out the season strong, playing hard, trying to play well,” Lundqvist explained. “Once we get to the offseason, then I will think about everything that happened this year.”
Tuesday marks the fourth and final meeting between the Hudson River rivals in 2017-18. The Devils are 2-1-0 against the Rangers, winning the only other game played in Newark, 4-3 in a shootout on Dec. 21.