New York Rangers\' Derek Stepan, right, watches a goal by Brandon Dubinsky go into the net past New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur during the first period of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 19, 2012, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
NEW YORK, N.Y. - The New York Rangers had plenty of fight at the start and a whole lot left at the end when they skated off with the Eastern Conference's first playoff berth.
The Rangers broke a two-game losing streak and won for the third time in eight games by using their fists and sticks in a hard-fought 4-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Monday night. Brandon Dubinsky scored shortly after a fight-filled opening faceoff, and New York led virtually start to finish against their bitter rivals.
As the visiting team, the Devils set their opening lineup first—and the starting five included Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen and Ryan Carter, who between them came in with three goals, four assists and 252 penalty minutes this season.
New York countered with Mike Rupp, Brandon Prust and defenceman Stu Bickel, who actually took the faceoff for the first time in his career.
"Those guys are tough, the three of them are tough, too," said Dubinsky, who scored at 1:11. "It was nice to score a goal, but by no means am I going to try to take credit away from those guys because it's a tough job to do that. They all stepped up to the plate and did a good job for us."
Three fights broke out at the outset and that jump-started the Rangers, whose lead in the East dwindled to almost nothing recently.
Rangers coach John Tortorella said he wasn't aware that his club had secured a post-season spot until several minutes after the game.
"I just want us to continue to play and continue to try to improve, and try to be playing our best hockey when we go into that last week," he said. "These last couple of weeks are very important."
Defenceman Dan Girardi scored in the first minute of the second period, and Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan added goals for the Rangers, who lead the Pittsburgh Penguins by three points. New York (45-20-7) has 10 games remaining. Pittsburgh has 11 to play, including one against the Rangers.
Henrik Lundqvist stopped 20 shots and got the Rangers back on track after home losses to Colorado and Pittsburgh. New York, which has two games remaining on a seven-game homestand, went 3-2-1 against New Jersey in the season series.
The Rangers have often struggled until the final days to get into the playoffs, but now they have joined Western Conference-leading St. Louis as the only teams to qualify this season. This is the earliest they have clinched a playoff spot since they did it on March 8, 1992.
"It's definitely a foreign feeling, I guess, not coming down to the last day," Dubinsky said. "We've worked really hard all year for this opportunity. We said from the get-go, the playoffs weren't our goal. We want home-ice advantage."
Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora had goals, and Martin Brodeur made 23 saves for the Devils (41-27-5), who are sixth in the East. They are three points ahead of the Ottawa Senators, their opponent on the road Tuesday, with nine games remaining.
"There is no easy game for us," Elias said. "They're right behind us and they're waiting for us. We've got to be ready."
After the last meeting between the teams on March 6, some Rangers said the Devils played as though they were trying to kill them. New York was determined from the start to ensure that wouldn't happen again.
Before the puck dropped for the opening faceoff, it was already clear that it wouldn't be a calm beginning as players jousted and jabbed with their counterparts next to them.
"The way it was set up, you knew that something was coming. I was excited to play, maybe too much," said Elias, who took blame for the first goal, saying he was out of position because he went to deliver a hit.
Gloves and sticks hit the ice about the same time as the puck, and six of the 10 skaters squared off to fight. On either side of the big faceoff circle in the middle, Janssen and Boulton fought Prust and Rupp. While inside the Devils' zone, Bickel traded blows with Carter. Carter got in the better shots, but fell to the ice first and was already bleeding when he went down. It got worse when Bickel fell onto him and delivered more shots that left several blood spots on the ice that had to be scraped and shovelled.
Devils defenceman Bryce Salvador tried to come to Carter's aid by grabbing Bickel. Salvador was given a 10-minute misconduct.
"I've never seen anything like that," Lundqvist said. "We were pretty fired up going out when Torts saw their starting lineup. He changed a little bit on our starting lineup, and I think guys were ready to go out there."
Only four penalties were called after the first period.
"Emotions are high and everything, but you've just got to kind of take a deep breath and step back and just play the way we want to play," Elias said. "There was a lot of things happening in the first period, and after that it kind of settled down. We started playing better in the second, but in the third we didn't give ourselves a chance to get back."
Tortorella could be seen yelling at the New Jersey bench before play resumed. When it did, his club struck first.
The Rangers took a 1-0 lead for the second straight game when Dubinsky scored his first in seven contests.
New York bottled up the Devils in the period and held them to six shots. The Rangers struck quickly again at the start of the second to double the lead.
Carl Hagelin sent a pass across the full length of the New Jersey zone to Girardi, who let go a change-up of a shot that sailed left. Brodeur stuck out his stick, and the puck clipped the shaft and deflected in just under the crossbar at 33 seconds. It was Girardi's fifth of the season and first since Jan. 17—a span of 27 games.
The Devils got that one back 4:30 later when Elias took the puck at the left post and managed to find a sliver of space over Lundqvist's right shoulder and under the crossbar for his 25th goal.
New York restored its two-goal lead at 7:33 when Zuccarello scored for the second straight game. It was the Rangers' first power-play goal in four games and just their sixth in 19 contests—covering 55 opportunities.
The Devils answered again at 11:08 when Sykora netted his 17th with an unscreened shot from Lundqvist's right.
Stepan sealed it by scoring his 16th of the season with 1:10 left in the game.
NOTES: It is Elias' seventh NHL season with at least 25 goals, and first since the 2008-09 season. He has 12 goals and 35 points in his last 34 games. ... Thirteen of the past 17 meetings have been decided by two or fewer goals.