There aren’t many scenarios in which the Rangers would be able to make the playoffs without collecting as many points as possible on their current four-game stretch against the struggling Devils.
That fact wasn’t lost on the Blueshirts, who picked up their third straight win over the Devils, 6-3 on Saturday afternoon at the Garden, despite a valiant comeback effort from New Jersey. The victory brought the Rangers within four points of the fourth playoff spot in the East Division — currently occupied by the Bruins, who have two games in hand with a game against the first-place Capitals on Sunday afternoon.
The Rangers have said they understand there is no room for error during the final 13 games of the season. That ignited a persistent, shoot-first mentality, a hungry power play and a short-fused roster over the past three games, in which the Rangers have outscored the Devils, 13-3.
But that began to dissipate after the Rangers built a 4-0 lead through the beginning of the second period Saturday. The Devils, who are second-to-last in the East, showed what a team that has nothing to lose is capable of with three unanswered goals — including two within the first 6:38 of the third period.
Rangers head coach David Quinn promptly called a timeout to let his team reset while he pointed out what he had seen happening on the ice.
“Just the fact that [the Devils] were just winning too many one-on-one battles,” Quinn said of his message in the huddle. “That’s really all four-on-four is, and it really was a reflection of where we were mentally. It was leading up, the four-on-four really exposed where we were mentally. Once we get up four-nothing, I really thought that we disrespected the game and our opponent.
“We’ve talked about this, New Jersey, Buffalo, the teams that are out of it, they’re going to play their asses off, and if we think it’s going to be easy, we’re sadly mistaken. I wasn’t surprised with the pushback we got from them.”
Igor Shesterkin looked to be on his way to a third-straight shutout after an easy first period, but Devils center Michael McLeod ended the rookie netminder’s no-goal streak at 152:37 in the middle frame. Shesterkin, who made 30 saves, had also gone 199:33 without surrendering a goal to the Devils this season — setting a franchise record for the longest shutout streak against one opponent.
The Devils pulled goalie Aaron Dell for one last push in the final minutes, but birthday boy Pavel Buchnevich completed the first hat trick of his career, and Chris Kreider scored his first goal since March 28 on an empty goal to cap the game.
“We stopped playing a little bit and just made it way too easy for them,” Mika Zibanejad said. “They’re good enough to take advantage of their chances and that obviously wasn’t good, but I liked how we stuck it out and got the win.”
The Rangers poured on a three-goal first period for the second straight game against the Devils. Two of the goals came on the power play, including a five-on-three opportunity. Through the first 20 minutes, the Rangers went 2-for-3 with the man-advantage on goals by Ryan Strome and Buchnevich, consistently putting the puck on net and suffocating the Devils.
Before the domination on the power play, Artemi Panarin forced a turnover in the neutral zone on his way to the bench, sending Zibanejad and Buchnevich on a 2-on-1 rush. Zibanejad faked the shot before dishing to Buchnevich for the 1-0 score at 7:26.
Panarin extended the Rangers’ lead 32 seconds into the second period with a wrist shot on the rush to make it a 4-0 game. The goal completed Panarin’s eighth three-point performance at home this season, a feat that only Jaromir Jagr and Mark Messier have accomplished since 1990-91.
“We certainly had our hands full today, we’re going to have our hands full again [Sunday],” Quinn said. “But it’s really good to see that we’ve put ourselves in this position to be playing meaningful hockey.”
The Rangers look to complete the sweep and keep their postseason hopes alive on Sunday at Prudential Center.