It wasn’t about payback or revenge for the Rangers on Sunday. None of the Blueshirts expressed any delight after eliminating the Devils from playoff contention following their 4-1 victory at Madison Square Garden.
This Rangers team is too focused on the task at hand to pause and reflect on seeing the Devils’ season go down in flames a year after New Jersey served the Rangers a bitter dish in overtime of Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
It didn’t stop Rangers fans from taunting the Devils and visiting fans with chants of “Season’s over, season’s over.”
Adam Henrique’s series winner feels like ages ago considering the Devils’ spiraled downfall and the Rangers’ unexpectedly laborious final weeks of the regular season. This Rangers team was expected to be challenging a top seed in the Eastern Conference, rather than fending off the Devils and Winninpeg Jets in the final stretch.
“We weren’t thinking about last year,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh stated. “I mean, this is a totally different year. We’re trying to fight for our lives and get ourselves the opportunity to get back to that stage again.”
Ryan Callahan opened the scoring just 34 seconds into the game and the Blueshirts didn’t look back. They didn’t take their foot of the gas for sixty minutes and dominated the forecheck against the penalty-prone and frustrated Devils.
It was a level of consistency that pleased demanding head coach John Tortorella.
“We are playing some of our most consistent hockey at an important time,” Tortorella stated. “I don’t know if it’s because of where we are at in the standings, but I hope we continue it here because we have an opportunity to get in.”
Meanwhile, Devils’ head coach Pete DeBoer spent most of the night barking at the refs and shaking his head in disbelief before getting ejected in the third period. DeBoer was given a game misconduct with less than a minute remaining in regulation.
“There was frustration. It’s obviously not the way you want to go out, but that’s how it ends for us. We will have to regroup and move forward,” DeBoer said after the Devils were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
While the Devils were devoid of confidence on Sunday, the Rangers have shaken the demons that once plagued them. Henrik Lundqvist sees a renewed confidence in his teammates.
“We’re doing a lot of good things, all the smaller details in the game and that’s why we’re scoring more, I think,” Lundqvist explained. “Also confidence, you can tell guys are making great plays right now. It all starts with confidence.”
The Rangers are now 8-2-1 in their last 11 games and riding a wave of positive momentum before facing the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes on the road before closing out the regular season against the Devils on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
“We’re playing our best hockey we’ve played all year,” Callahan said. “Now is the time to do that. We’ve been playing playoff-style hockey the last couple of games. These are must-wins for us. It gives us a dress rehearsal for the playoffs.”
It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish and this Rangers team finally feels like they’ve found themselves just before the playoffs get underway. Sometimes, that kind of momentum can ride you all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Los Angeles Kings finished eighth in the Western Conference only to knock out the President Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs as they rode sensational Jonathan Quick on their way to lifting Lord Stanley.
For the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist is perfectly capable of carrying the Blueshirts deep into the playoffs. It’s just a matter of whether the Rangers can keep the offense flowing. Considering their recent stretch of games, they’re certainly looking like a well-rounded team as the playoffs approach.
You can follow Sean on Twitter — @HartnettHockey.