In the immediate aftermath, there was frustration from the Rangers at an opportunity squandered.
There was also the realization the product is unfinished and there are five and half months to go before the truly important games are contested.
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Dainius Zubrus’ goal with 2:55 left in regulation was the difference as the Rangers dropped a 3-2 decision to the Devils Tuesday night at the Garden.
“We have to continue to be better every game,” Mats Zuccarello said.
Last night’s game was the second of five meetings between the Hudson River rivals this season. The Devils won the first game, 4-0, on Oct. 19 at the Rock. The Devils (6-7-5) have won consecutive games for the first time this season.
Zubrus’ goal was the culmination of a counterattacking sequence that began when the right wing blocked a Dan Girardi shot. Jaromir Jagr, who played a strong 17:06, brought the puck into the neutral zone and found Travis Zajac with a pass from the half wall. Zubrus swatted Zajac’s rebound under Henrik Lundqvist (25 saves) for the game-winning goal.
“Hank would want to have [Zubrus’ goal] back,” head coach Alain Vigneault said.
While Zubrus’ goal was the game-winner, it was hardly the reason the Rangers’ three-game winning streak came to an end. The biggest culprit was a power play that went 0-for-5. The Rangers (9-9-0) had entered the match 6-for-24 on the man advantage in the preceding seven games.
“They did a good job of blocking our shots or we blocked our own shots,” Brad Richards said of a Devils squad which finished with 18 blocked shots. “You have to give them credit. They work hard on that penalty kill and we knew it was going to be a challenge.”
Then there was Martin Brodeur. Brodeur finished with 33 saves and his ability to stickhandle virtually eliminated dump-ins.
“He always breaks down your forecheck,” Richards said. “He’s out there like a third defenseman.”
Defensemen played roles in setting up the Devils’ first goal.
Andy Greene set it up by intercepting Michael Del Zotto’s clearing attempt at the blueline, then weaved his way to the slot before finding a cutting Steve Bernier. The right wing shoveled a quick shot under Lundqvist that Ryan Carter tapped across the goal line 6:37 into the second to open the scoring.
The Devils had a 1-0 lead. It lasted for a full 18 seconds.
Marc Staal tied the game at 1-1 at 6:55 with a slap shot that beat Brodeur stick side. The play began when Zuccarello carried the puck behind the net before finding an uncovered Staal at the left point.
Staal’s second of the season — and the 100th point of his NHL career — ended Brodeur’s shutout streak at 192:26 dating back to Nov. 2.
Carter sent the Devils into the second intermission with a 2-1 lead when his off-wing backhander beat Lundqvist five hole with 45 seconds left in the period.
“It’s a routine save,” Vigneault said.
Girardi drew the game even at 2-2 13:18 into the third with his first after the season. Girardi wristed a shot from inside the blueline that trickled off of Brodeur’s glove and into the net.
The game remained tied until Zubrus’ game winner.
Befitting two rivals who despise each other, the match was a mean-edged affair with plenty of pushing, shoving and on-ice conversations throughout.
“It’s a rivalry,” Zuccarello said. “It’s a tough game to play. It’s going to get like that.”
The Devils lost defenseman Anton Volchenkov for the game due to a “lower-body” injury in the first period. MSG Network’s cameras showed Volchenkov walking to the tunnel with a trainer during a stoppage of play in the first period. He skated six shifts totaling 3:30 of ice time.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.