The themes that emanated from the Rangers’ dressing room were desperation and detail.
The Rangers did not play with either, while the Devils did. As a result, both teams earned what they deserved Tuesday night.
“We’re not where we need to be,” Brad Richards said after the Rangers dropped a 4-1 decision to the Devils at the Prudential Center. The cross-river rivals are 2-2-1 in five games this season. The teams will conclude the regular season series March 19 at the Garden.
Ilya Kovalchuk, David Clarkson, Ryan Carter and Patrik Elias scored for New Jersey. Derek Stepan scored the Rangers’ lone goal.
Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur engaged in a spectacular goaltending duel as both goaltenders made 25 saves.
“We’ve got to realize this time of year teams are going the other way. We’ve played at a good level most of the year. It’s why we’ve been successful,” Richards added. “Teams are going to pick [it up] as they get in races. Desperation has to match those teams.”
It did not. The Rangers appeared to be a team that was both physically and mentally tired. Neither are welcome traits with the playoffs on the horizon.
“Little bit of both,” John Tortorella said when asked if the loss was attributable to his team’s lack of passion or inability to finish plays successfully. “I thought we gathered ourselves in the second period after a horsebleep first period. Just some details, some turnovers, were ridiculous. Cost us a game.”
The teams entered the third deadlocked at 1-1. Then the Devils took control, as Clarkson and Carter scored in a span of 2:06.
Clarkson’s goal was the game-winner. Petr Sykora, who was feted prior to the game for playing in his 1,000th NHL game, fired a shot that deflected off of Clarkson and past a leaning Lundqvist.
Kovalchuk opened the scoring 49 seconds into the game with his 26th goal of the season. Andy Greene forced a turnover at center ice. Zach Parise corralled the loose puck, then sprung Kovalchuk. The Devils’ $100-million left wing split Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh before wristing a snapshot past Lundqvist.
The Devils’ lead lasted until Stepan equalized at 6:56 of the second with a one-timer from the slot that beat Brodeur high. The Rangers surged after the goal as they outshot the Devils, 14-7.
But Stepan’s 15th goal of the season is all the Rangers would get. The Devils outshot the Rangers 10-3 in the third and 28-26 overall.
“We started to come; we started to control some pucks; we started to get some opportunities. We tie up the game,” Ryan Callahan said. “In the third, we have to kick it up another notch and we didn’t do that. We didn’t match that. We have to work harder.
“Build on the second period we had. I thought we had a strong second period. We started to take over, we started to get the momentum, but we didn’t sustain it in the third.”
Elias added an empty-netter at 18:07 to end the game.
Despite the loss, the Rangers still lead the East by a comfortable margin while the Devils strengthened their hold on to the No. 6 seed in the East.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.