The Rangers players implored management not to break up a team that entered the day with the best record in the Eastern Conference. They stated Rick Nash — or anyone else that management may have had their eye on — was unnecessary.
The Rangers began the process of proving their words to be true Monday night with a 2-0 win over the Devils at the Garden. The Rangers are 2-1-1 against the Devils this season with two games remaining.
“It is the tightest hockey team I’ve coached,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
There wasn’t much in terms of offense for two of the NHL’s premier defensive-oriented clubs. The teams combined for 28 shots total, 15 for the Rangers and 13 for the Devils. The 13 shots against is a season low for the Rangers. The previous low was 17 allowed against Tampa Bay in a 4-3 win on Feb. 9.
“It was tight. The neutral zone was key for both teams,” Marian Gaborik said.
The game-winning goal came off the stick of Carl Hagelin at 16:59 of the first period. Martin Brodeur failed to clear the puck from the defensive zone and the Rangers were able to cycle and forecheck for one of the few times in the match. Hagelin slipped behind Mark Fayne at the top of the crease and snapped a quick one-timer over New Jersey’s Hall-of-Famer to be.
“I tried to get a shot off,” Hagelin said of his 11th goal of the season. He is tied with Artem Anisimov for fifth place on the team in goals scored. “I tried to get it up high.”
Hagelin assisted on Ryan Callahan’s empty-net goal at 18:54 in the third.
Brodeur finished with 14 saves while Henrik Lundqvist recorded his NHL-leading eighth shutout of the season.
If the first period was testament to the skill that the league wants to highlight, then the second was an ode to the historical hatred the franchises share. Players on both sides exchanged headlocks after whistles. Brandon Prust and Eric Boulton paired off in a long bout behind the Devils goal line at 16:52. David Clarkson and Mike Rupp were even assessed unsportsmanlike conduct penalties at 17:00 for exchanging words in the faceoff circle before the puck was dropped.
“The whole game was a playoff feel,” Rupp said.
After his unsportsmanlike penalty expired, Clarkson fought Brandon Dubinsky with 33 seconds remaining in the period. Clarkson had been given a 10-minute misconduct at the 4:58 mark of the period following an on-ice conversation between he and Dubinsky that saw a linesman have to skate, and then pin, the Devils right wing to the Seventh Avenue corner boards.
“Dubinsky went after [Ilya Kovalchuk]. I went out and said something, went to line up, he slashes the stick and I got a 10 [minute misconduct],” Clarkson said.
To instigate the fight with Dubinsky, Clarkson leapt into the Rangers’ winger. Along with the five minute major for fighting, Clarkson was penalized for charging. Clarkson finished with 19 penalty minutes and 11:14 of ice time.
“I don’t know,” Clarkson said of the charging penalty. “I was going down the wall full speed. The puck wasn’t there and he kind of cut me off. That penalty, I don’t mind but the 10 [minute misconduct] kind of sucked.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.