Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a win after a rocky start. Credit: Getty Images
Both sides recognized the grandeur of the stage they were about take and the history they were about author.
Never before had the NHL hosted an outdoor game in New York City and never had a hockey game been contested in Yankee Stadium until the NHL selected the Rangers and Devils to bring their feud to the House the Boss Built.
"It never ceases to amaze me what this league and this sport can come up with," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "I don't even know what to expect anymore. I've only been in the league for four years now and I've played one [Winter Classic] game in Philly and now a game in my hometown city. It seems to get better and better every time, and every year there's something going on with the league. Who would have ever thought they would have had a game in L.A. and now New York?"
While the atmosphere was embraced by the organizations, it came with a caveat: There were two very important points for the taking, secured by the Rangers in a 7-3 win.
The Rangers improved to 28-23-3 and, in doing so, increased their lead over the 22-20-11 Devils to four points in the packed Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference playoff races. The Rangers are second in the division and sixth in the conference. The Devils are sixth in the Metro and 11th in the East.
"It's really good to get the win," Rangers center Brad Richards said. "It makes the day a good day. We can talk about it being special and if you lose you probably don't think about it for a couple days later, how fun it was. But we can sit here and enjoy it because we don't play until Wednesday [against the Islanders at Yankee Stadium].
"The two points ... they're right behind us as are a lot of other teams."
Mats Zuccarello scored twice for the Rangers, who also had goals off the sticks of Dominic Moore, Marc Staal, Carl Hagelin, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. Henrik Lundqvist made 19 saves. Patrik Elias scored twice for the Devils and Travis Zajac added another.
It took all of 188 seconds for the Devils and Rangers to get physical, as McDonagh drove Zajac head over heels into the Devils' bench.
"You're just trying to get yourself in the game more than anything," McDonagh said.
But following the hit the game evolved into an ode to free-flowing hockey with offensive fireworks to rival those that greeted the teams when they took the ice.
The Devils held a 3-2 lead at the first intermission due to the strength of two Elias goals, a Zajac marker and sloppy defensive zone coverage by the Rangers.
"We did come out ready to play," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "I thought we had a really good first period."
Still, the Rangers were in the game because of strong work from their fourth line. Moore scored at 9:07 to tie the game at 1-1, and his offensive zone faceoff win with 3:04 left in the period led to Staal's goal.
The Devils had been the better team. But the Rangers had life and momentum.
"Down by one wasn't too bad," Staal said. "I think we gave, off the rush, some opportunities to score and they weren't making any mistakes, and they were ready to go. We were able to weather it for the most part and to be only down by one, we knew we had to be a lot better in the second period."
They were, as Zuccarello, Hagelin and Nash scored in the middle stanza to give the Rangers a 6-3 stranglehold.
"I think the one thing, [in] the second period, was we simplified. We seemed to be rewarded that way," Nash said. "We got some traffic and just some lucky bounces. If you look at those goals, they're all pretty lucky. When you work hard, keep it simple, bounces are going to go your way.
Nash's goal was his 11th in his last 11 games.
The goal also ended Martin Brodeur's first outdoor game experience, as DeBoer replaced the legendary netminder with Cory Schneider to start the third. Schneider allowed one goal — a Derek Stepan penalty shot — on five shots. Brodeur finished with 15 saves on 21 shots.
"We didn't help him out much," DeBoer said of Brodeur. "At that point I had a conversation with him and we both agreed, and it was actually his comment, that how about give [Schneider] the experience of a period in this environment. It wasn't working for him or our group the way it was. So I give him credit for that. It made sense too."
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter@DenisGorman.