The game started out ugly, but ended with a satisfying reward for the Rangers, who became the first team to clinch a playoff bid in the Eastern Conference with a 4-2 win in their series finale against the Devils at Madison Square Garden Monday.
With 97 points, the 45-20-7 Rangers widened their lead to three points on the charging Pittsburgh Penguins and secured their earliest berth since thee 1991-92 season, when they clinched on March 9 through Game no. 68.
"I didn't even know we did until a few minutes ago," coach John Tortorella admitted. "To me, it doesn't mean a whole h--- of a lot. I just want us to continue to play and continue to improve as a hockey club and to try to be playing our best hockey when we go into that last week."
The assured spot in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs is a far from cry from the past two seasons, when the Rangers' fate was decided on the last day of the regular season schedule.
"It's definitely a foreign feeling, I guess," said Brandon Dubinsky, who tallied his first goal in seven games 1:11 into play. "It's not coming down to the last day. We worked really hard for this opportunity. I think we said from the get-go the playoffs weren't our goal. We want home-ice advantage."
With Monday's win, the Rangers took another step closer to that feat, pulling three points ahead of the Penguins and five ahead of the Flyers. Slipping to a five-seed is not impossibly, but it appears unlikely.
"We want to get in a good spot and put ourselves in a good position going into the playoffs, and, more importantly, we want to try to be playing our best hockey going in," Said Dubinsky, who was wearing the team's MVP trophy Broadway hat after the game. "We've got ten games down the stretch to fine-tune things and make sure we're ready for that. It's exciting and each and every guy contributed."
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 20 saves to record his 33rd win of the season, said the Rangers will use the last ten games to refine their game heading into the playoffs rather than panicking about squeaking their way into post-season play.
"It's about improving our game and getting to where we want to be when the playoffs start."