Rangers have chance to reverse troubling trend against Devils

Well, here are the Devils in a role that has not only become familiar but customary as they prepare to face Rangers in Newark on Tuesday.

And that would be as a bottom dweller trying to ruin a team’s playoff season. That’s what it’s been year after year for the franchise, which has finished 20th overall or lower in nine of 10 seasons since making the Cup final in 2012.

The Devils ranked 29th overall after finishing 29th overall last season, 26th two years ago and 29th in 2018-19. Indeed, they were only five points away from having the best chance of entering the draw from which they came away with the first overall picks in 2019 (Jack Hughes) and 2017 (Nico Hischier).

And it doesn’t necessarily get better for the Devils as the year progresses. Hughes, who has played just 49 of the club’s 69 games, is out again, suffering from a lower-body injury he suffered while being checked out by Oliver Wahlstrom on Sunday. It was a day after the club lost a 6-2 lead early in the third period to Florida and lost 7-6 in overtime.

Indeed, the Devils have won only two of their last 10 games (2-7-1) while allowing 50 goals during this period. Only one of the wins came in regulation time. Of course, that one was against Rangers two weeks ago on March 22 by a score of 7-4 in a game the Blueshirts were leading 2-0 after the first period.

Ranger Devils
Rangers’ Andrew Copp (18) moves the puck past Devils’ Jesper Boqvist in a March 22 game.

And it’s here we note that while the Devils have settled into their familiar role, the Rangers are in a decidedly unfamiliar role as they inch closer to their first playoff spot since 2017. And that avoids disappointment against clubs out of contention, winning just two of their last six (2-3-1) against clubs in such dire straits.

It’s part of the conversation after a streak in which the Blueshirts played their best two games in victories against a Penguins team, they are fighting for second place in the Metro Division while losing twice to the Islanders and the Devils once in regulation and against the Flyers in a shootout on Sunday. They also struggled to secure overtime wins over the Sabers and Red Wings.

And that becomes relevant with this game in New Jersey perhaps a trap game leading up to another showdown against Pittsburgh on Thursday at the Garden.

Ranger Devils
The Devils beat Rangers 7-4 in New Jersey on March 22.

“At the start of the year, there was a lot of talk about how we couldn’t beat the right teams,” head coach Gerard Gallant said before the game. “Now we beat the good teams but we drop to the so-called bad teams, and they’re not bad teams, don’t get me wrong, they’re all playing for jobs and they’re all working hard and competing hard.

“They don’t have much to play for in the standings, some of these teams, but they’re going to work hard and they’re going to play loose and force you to make mistakes, like Philadelphia the other night. They worked hard, they made big failures before and they made us make mistakes.

“But we just have to play one game at a time, no matter who your opponent is,” he said. You have to play your best game and prepare as best you can.

Rangers players started talking about the playoffs even as the club’s magic number to clinch rested at eight points. Justin Braun, who has 100 games of tournament experience and made it to the Cup final in 2016 with the Sharks, spoke about the importance for a team to step up and feel good about their game before the playoffs. Alexis Lafrenière acknowledged the challenge of staying focused on the task at hand as the playoffs are four weeks away.

“We’re all excited for the playoffs for sure,” Lafrenière said. “But we have a [few] games left and some big games, so we have to stay in the moment and try to win every game.

There’s also a challenge for Gallant to balance prep work and line-combination chemistry while giving his players the rest they need for the tournament. It might be advantageous for, say, Adam Fox to get a game or two at the end of the long season.

“Yes and no,” said the coach. “We want to play well. This is the bottom line. We’re gonna have 27 guys over here shortly. [when Kaapo Kakko and Kevin Rooney come off Injured Reserve]too bad if you do and too bad if you don’t.

“You want to win hockey games. You want to play well and you want to get everyone going, but while you’d also like to give some people a break, you’re too hard on us when we lose, so I have to get the best out of them.”

New York Post

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