With Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference leads rapidly slipping away from their grasp, the fading New York Rangers needed to take a stand and make a statement. New York's two-game losing streak and 3-5-1 mark in the last nine, coupled with hot streaks by the Pittsburgh Penguins (11-0-1 in last 12) and Philadelphia Flyers (8-1-1 in last 10) had brought the Rangers' divisional rivals to within one and three points, respectively.
It appeared New York was going to slip away quietly, but if the line brawl just three seconds after the opening puck was dropped was a tell-tale sign, one could deduce the Rangers made their point.
Rangers' coach John Tortorella jawed with Devils' bench boss Peter Deboer prior to the opening face off, presumably because of the starting lineup card handed in by New Jersey. Shortly thereafter, the puck was dropped between the Devils' Ryan Carter and New York's Stu Bickel (who is a defenseman), and Jersey's Cam Janssen dropped the gloves with Brandon Prust, and the Devs' Eric Boulton went with the Rangers' Mike Rupp.
Carter seemed to take the worst of anyone in the fracas, as it appeared he fell to the ice face-first. He bled profusely from his nose, which may have been broken from the impact with the ice surface. After arguably winning the battle of fists, the Broadway Blue Shirts quickly took to scoring goals to win where it matters most, on the scoreboard.
By virtue of the triumph, New York effectively clinched a playoff berth in the process.
New York took full advantage of a four-on-two rush just over a minute into the contest, when Dubinsky took a pass from Stepan and snapped a wrist shot from the slot past Martin Brodeur for his eighth goal of the season.
The best scoring chance for New Jersey in the first period came several minutes later, when Zach Parise ripped a rebound of an Ilya Kovalchuk attempt past Henrik Lundqvist but off the goal post to the netminder's right.
The Rangers would double their lead early in the second, when rear guard Dan Girardi beat Brodeur with a shot from the top of the right circle that eluded the goaltender for the defenseman's fifth tally of the year, making it a 2-0 lead just 33 seconds into the middle frame.
Patrik Elias drew the Devils back to within 2-1 when his bad-angle shot from the bottom of the left circle near the goal line went over the short-side shoulder of Lundqvist and under the crossbar for his 25th goal of the season at 5:03 of the second.
New York would answer just 2:30 later, when Mats Zuccarello picked up the rebound of a Ryan Callahan point shot and jammed it past Brodeur for his second goal of the year and a 3-1 lead for the home club.
New Jersey again climbed back to within a goal when Kovalchuk sent a cross-ice feed from the right wing wall that deflected off Marek Zidlicky's stick on the way to Petr Sykora at the left circle, and the winger snapped a shot past Lundqvist to the short side for his 17th goal of the season to bring the Devils to 3-2 at the second intermission.
Stepan closed out the scoring late in the third, putting the contest out of reach, by redirecting a Dubinsky point shot past Brodeur for his 16th goal of the season with just 1:10 remaining to seal the deal.
Lundqvist finished the night with 20 saves on 22 New Jersey shots to improve his record to 33-15-5, while Brodeur stopped 23 Rangers' offerings in falling to 26-20-3.
The loss was the Devils' second straight and left them with 87 points, five points behind the fifth-place Flyers. Philly also holds one game in hand on Jersey.
The two points increased New York's lead over Pittsburgh to three points and over Philadelphia to five, and while the division and conference leads may not be as sure of a thing as it seemed to be a month ago, the Rangers are the first team in the East to officially lock up a postseason berth.
And if the scene just three seconds into the game is any indication, the Blue Shirts will not allow their lead to slip away without a fight.