NEWARK, N.J. — There have been many memorable games played between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils over the years, though not too many important ones in recent memory.
That changed this season with both teams jockeying for position at the top of the Metropolitan Division standings, making for an intriguing clash Thursday night when the Devils (19-9-5) host the Rangers (19-12-3) at the Prudential Center.
“It’s exciting, with the proximity of the teams, when they are (both) competitive,” said Devils coach John Hynes following practice on Wednesday. “We’re glad we’re in it. It’s fun to be part of. Hopefully it continues that way.”
The last time both teams made the playoffs was 2011-12 when the Devils ousted the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. While the Rangers reached the postseason each year since — including a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final — the Devils failed to make the playoffs even once. Last season, the Devils bottomed out, finishing last in the conference.
However, the Devils are back in the mix this season right alongside the Rangers.
“We feel we can beat anybody in this league,” Devils goalie Cory Schneider said.
Both teams play a similar up-tempo style with rosters that feature established veterans and quality young talent. And both are playing well entering Thursday’s contest.
The Rangers beat the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 on Tuesday, extending their winning streak to three games. Since Halloween, the Rangers are 16-5-1.
“We’re playing some pretty good hockey,” stated Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “Our body of work here for the last 20-something games has been pretty good.”
New Jersey won the first two games of their current six-game homestand, most recently coming back from a pair of two-goal deficits to beat the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 on Monday. The Devils, who consistently get clutch contributions from up and down their lineup, received two goals apiece from bottom-six forwards Stefan Noesen and Miles Wood to beat the Ducks.
“Our team is resilient,” said Noesen. “We’re not going to give up no matter how many times we get down.”
The Devils expect to get veteran forward Marcus Johansson back in the lineup Thursday. He missed the previous four games with an ankle bruise, but practiced fully with his teammates Wednesday. His return follows those of Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri, both of whom were back Monday after injuries sidelined them.
However, rookie winger Jesper Bratt skipped practice with a sore foot after blocking a shot against the Ducks. Despite that injury, Bratt scored the game-tying goal Monday and contributed an assist. He is second on the team with 23 points.
“New Jersey’s playing well, just got a big win, got some key guys back from injury, so it’s going to be a big challenge,” said Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh.
New York is finally healthy again with the return of top-line center Mika Zibanejad to the lineup Tuesday after a nine-game absence due to a concussion.
“It was good to be out there again,” said Zibanejad, who is tied for second on the Rangers with 11 goals. “It’s just the plays and the timing, and I think that’s what you just kind of get back into slowly. It’s another game on Thursday.”
Henrik Lundqvist starts in goal for the Rangers. Over the course of his great career, Lundqvist has more victories (36) and shutouts (8) against the Devils than versus any other team.
“You just have to look at their record this year to realize they are a good team,” Lundqvist said of the Devils. “We have to go in there and really play our best game.”
Hynes confirmed that Schneider makes his fifth straight start in goal Thursday, and 14th in the last 17 games.
After Thursday, the Rangers and Devils meet once more this season, April 3 in New Jersey. The teams split the first two meetings this season.