Blueshirts answer Devils challenge

Maybe it was fitting. How else could one describe “Line Brawl” three seconds out of the gate between blood rivals, the Devils and Rangers? At least in the final regular season installment of the Battle Of Hudson, blood was shed at the opening faceoff between two teams who can’t stand each other. Whatever side you’re on, it was old-time hockey that would’ve made Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlap character proud.

How else to explain defenseman Stu Bickel taking the first draw against Ryan Carter which predictably led to six players squaring off side by side. Aside from Bickel and Carter throwing heymakers, the participants included Brandon Prust and Cam Janssen pairing off while Mike Rupp and Eric Boulton danced, creating the NHL version of Slap Shot to NBC Sports Network in front of a national audience. I’m not sure how well it went over but for those at The Garden, it was riveting in a bizarre fashion. Truth is the majority of hockey fans love fighting. Scripted or not, the entire crowd got into it. And there were enough Devil jerseys there too.

Do I support staged fights? Unequivocally, no. I’m going to side with resident Jersey blogger Hasan, who gave a good account on why it was a mistake from Devil coach Pete DeBoer to start his enforcers. Anytime the visiting coach turns in a lineup that features two noted goons and one bruiser who put Brandon Dubinsky out of action for a bit, they’re asking for it. While it’s more of a challenge than anything, especially after how the Devils manhandled us earlier this month in Newark, you have to answer the bell. And so a couple of days removed from real boxing upstairs at The Theater in a traditional St. Patrick’s Day MSG special seen on HBO by me and Pop, the capacity crowd got treated to an old fashioned downeybrook.

The positive out of the three entertaining scraps is that there were no more the rest of the way. It also eliminated the cheap shots that have become all too common in today’s game. For those who want fighting out, even if this was a negative example for the league due to John Tortorella countering with his tough guys, it still supports why we have it. Both teams got the rough stuff out of the way and then hockey was played. Given the bad blood dating back to our December visit along with the Devils last month that included Boulton going after Marian Gaborik following a goal, it was gonna happen. I’d say lay the blame on both coaches and move on. There was no way a fuming Tort, who screamed obscenities no matter what he said could start our skill guys against DeBoer’s lineup. He wanted to push us around. You can’t tolerate that on home turf.

The Rangers responded better to the challenge that also cost Devil blueliner Bryce Salvador a misconduct for justifiably jumping in to save fallen teammate Carter, who Bickel kept pounding. Definitely something I didn’t agree with. Once a guy’s down, you stop. End of story. As for what ensued, it didn’t take long for Dubinsky to take advantage of a four-on-two, beating Martin Brodeur low stick-side, firing us up even more. To be in the building for what easily was the best crowd of the season made it worth the price of admission. And we again had our 50 percent off for the obstructed view in Sec.411 with new areas visible for big screens they’ll be installing for next Fall. Considering the price is staying under 30 bucks for ’12-13 and we’re getting a 10 percent playoff discount by March 26, the Garden actually deserves to be commended for turning an ugly situation into a great one. That and ten dollar food vouchers per seat has been nice. Especially on a hot night where $5 water bottles came in handy. 😛

It was pretty clear that the Blueshirts played their most inspired hockey in weeks. They flat out dominated the first, outshooting the Devils 13-6 and outchancing them by a mile. Maybe something good did come out of the Colorado loss. They forechecked, finished checks and got shots through on a shaky Brodeur, who still saved his team’s bacon later on. Say this for both goalies. Neither was particularly sharp with both Marty and Henrik Lundqvist allowing a pair of soft goals. Dubinsky’s wasn’t. If not for a few big saves from Brodeur, his team probably would’ve trailed by three instead of one.

Tortorella reconstructed the third and fourth lines, finally breaking up Prust and Brian Boyle, who recently along with Ruslan Fedotenko had struggled. Instead, Boyle played with John Mitchell and Mats Zuccarello, who notched a power play goal and played well. Meanwhile, Prust formed a crash line with Rupp and Fedotenko that forechecked and was defensively responsible. The top two lines stayed intact with the RGH line (Richards-Gaborik-Hagelin) and USA line (Dubinsky-Stepan-Callahan) doing their part. The nice aspect of last night was they didn’t rely on Gaborik who couldn’t find the range on a great chance. As usual, Carl Hagelin was on the scoresheet with two helpers. You could give him a star almost every time out due his combination of speed, skill and grit that drives opponents nuts.

It was Hagelin who rode a Devil off the puck before finding Dan Girardi for a routine wrister that eluded Brodeur, going off his stick and skate for a two-goal lead 33 seconds into the second. Before they got too comfortable, the Devils cut the lead in half when all-time leading scorer Patrik Elias found the shortside on a Petr Sykora feed. By that point, they’d turned it up with relentless pressure and got just reward even if it wasn’t a good goal for Lundqvist to allow.

On this night, the Devils were their own worst enemy. Two undisciplined penalties came back to haunt them. The first on Boulton for boarding Zuccarello hurt any momentum when the feisty Norwegian got to a Brad Richards rebound for his second two and a half minutes later- restoring a two-goal lead. Callahan netted a primary helper by deflecting it off Brodeur for a juicy rebound that MZA deposited. The second two-goal lead lasted less than four minutes with Sykora somehow beating Lundqvist in an identical spot. Marek Zidlicky and Ilya Kovalchuk drew assists. On the first, he was without a stick. This one was unforgivable. Hank fought it all night, leaking rebounds. Good thing our D cleared the garbage.

The rest of the second saw the Devils press for the equalizer, including a golden opportunity with Dubinsky taking a needless boarding minor. However, the penalty killing unit marked Kovalchuk, who on a previous power play got off three one-timers in succession with the last gloved by Lundqvist. Ironically, the man who got the assignment Boyle talked to Pierre McGuire after the win. Kovalchuk tried his best to find room but either had his shots blocked or overpassed. At even strength, he found it difficult against Ryan McDonagh, who again effectively neutralized one of the most dangerous scorers. Adam Henrique had trouble and Zach Parise outside of a couple of strong shifts following a DeBoer timeout, was held in check.

One of the themes in this game was the Rangers’ attention to detail, winning the neutral zone battle in the first and most of the third. Our guys became sloppy in the second and it almost cost. Not surprisingly, they tightened up the screws. In fact, the Devils couldn’t mount anything during the first half which led to DeBoer’s timeout with still over 11 minutes remaining. His team responded with better shifts, pinning our D in. Particularly Marc Staal, who was a step behind. Mike Del Zotto wasn’t much sharper but was quicker at least. Stu Bickel had some shaky moments too. Oddly enough, rookie recall Tim Erixon didn’t panic. David Clarkson did some good stuff on the cycle for the black and red but was checked properly and took a couple of big hits. Even though I can’t stand him, he’s a player you have to contain because he does a lot of things for the Devs.

A McDonagh trip with 11:22 left gave the Devils another chance. They never came close due to outstanding PK work from usual suspects Boyle/Prust along with Stepan and Callahan. Hagelin also was good. Girardi excelled and Staal played his best down a man with McDonagh in the box. Following the kill, a loud “Let’s Go Rangers” chant went up. There were plenty of those for once. A pleasant welcome on a night they became the first Eastern team to wrap up a playoff berth, joining St. Louis out West.

Soon, the Blueshirts picked it up and started taking away center ice, forcing the Devils into several turnovers. Some came in their own end, leading to odd-man breaks. On more than a handful, our guys overpassed with even Dubinsky on a day he notched his eighth (2nd in 20) passing up a shot. When will they ever learn? There also was another sequence which seemed destined to be a goal but a sliding Brodeur stoned them. Gaborik and Boyle also whistled chances from 10 feet out wide.

Finally with New Jersey putting one last rush together, Jacob Josefson hi-sticked Callahan while trying to keep a play alive putting his team shorthanded with only three and a half left. Predictably, our team decided to go four corners and wait for a dangerous shorthanded club that boasts Henrique, Parise, Elias and even Kovalchuk to generate chances. Luckily, Salvador couldn’t keep a puck in to save his life or who knows. When it was finally concluding, Dubinsky did the wise thing and shot with Stepan deflecting home his 16th for 4-2 with 70 seconds to go.

As the final buzzer sounded, the season series was done. The Rangers prevailed 3-2-1 but were outscored 14-12. I think NHL Network had the shots as being nearly dead even, favoring us by one. These teams are evenly matched. While it looks like a long shot for the first round, an Eastern Conference Semifinal against the Devils would be great theater. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of them.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Mats Zuccarello, NYR (power play goal-2nd of season, 3 SOG, 3 hits, spunky in 16 shifts-13:37)
2nd Star-Martin Brodeur, NJD (23 saves, including some big ones)
1st Star-Brandon Dubinsky, NYR (8th of season, assist, 5 hits, 8-5 on draws, +2 in 17:57)

Notes: The physical affair saw a  combined 56 penalty minutes (NJD-33, NYR-23) 64 hits (NJD-23, NYR-41) and 22 blocked shots (NJD-9, NYR-13). … D Steve Eminger sat out a second straight due to injury with Tim Erixon (Even in 15 shifts-12:29) effectively replacing him. … Lundqvist finished with 20 saves, picking up his 33rd victory. … C Artem Anisimov (shoulder) missed another game and is a “game-time decision” for tomorrow versus Detroit. … Devils scratched RW Steve Bernier. … New Jersey visits Ottawa tonight with three points separating them from the seventh seeded Senators. The Devils have 87 while the Sens have 84. … Rangers conclude homestand with two against Detroit and Buffalo.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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