NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers gave a glimpse of a possible first-round playoff series in a couple of weeks, and it's going to be fun if it happens.
There are no guarantees, though.
Erik Haula and Timo Meier scored and Vitek Vanecek made three big third-period saves to lead the Devils to a 2-1 win over the Rangers on Thursday night in a matchup that got feistier with each minute.
The young, speedy Devils captured the season series 3-1 and opened a four-point lead over the Rangers in the Metropolitan Division with seven games left in the season.
With Carolina's loss to Detroit, New Jersey (102 points) moved within one point of the first-place Hurricanes, who have played one fewer game. If the Devils overtook Carolina, they would not face the Rangers in the opening round.
“Both teams know the standing situation and the rivalry,” Meier said. “So that’s a bit of a playoff-type game, the way you feel and also the pace and the physicality. Those games are fun and you can be be excited about the win but also know that there’s some big task ahead.”
Vanecek finished with 24 saves as he stopped Vincent Trocheck in close twice and Vladimir Tarasenko in the final 12 minutes in picking up his 30th win.
“Defensively it was a huge game for us and feel like we’re getting ready for the playoffs and it’s huge for us,” said Vanecek, who also got help from defenseman Ryan Graves.
Graves cleared a loose puck in the crease with Tarasenko lurking in the final minute.
“It’s just a split-second decision,” Graves said. "I’m just happy I didn’t hit it into my own net. It was pretty close.”
Chris Kreider scored his 33rd goal for the Rangers, who lost for the third time in 11 games (8-2-1). Igor Shesterkin maintained his outstanding play, making 29 saves before a sellout crowd at the Prudential Center that rooted for both teams.
“That was a good hockey game, two really good teams, 2-1 score,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said.
There was a lot of anticipation about this game with the teams so close in the standings. While the fans were loud, the game didn't pick up a playoff feeling until the latter part of the second period.
There was a scrum to the side of the Rangers' net after Haula gave Adam Fox a forecheck in the back after a whistle, and there was another behind the Devils' net after the period ended.
The Devils took a 2-0 lead in the first period.
Haula scored his second in as many games, redirecting a blue-line pass by Dougie Hamilton past Shesterkin at 5:17. Meier got his 36th of the season from the slot on a power play at 17:03 on a pass by Jack Hughes.
“You can’t let up goals early. It’s going to be a tough way to win when you do that," Fox said.
Kreider cut the advantage in half at 13:24 on a power-play shot in close off a pass from Mike Zibanejad after New Jersey failed to clear the offensive zone. It was his 262nd goal for the Rangers, tying him with Vic Hatfield for fifth in team history.
NOTES: Zibanejad's assist gave him 82 points, a career high. ... Rangers D Ryan Lindgren was scratched. ... The Devils scratched D Brendan Smith and Fs Curtis Lazar, Nathan Bastian and Nolan Foote. ... Devils coach Lindy Ruff on Vanecek joining Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur as a 30-game winner: “They are going to put a statue right next to him." Brodeur has a statue outside the Prudential Center.
Rangers: At Buffalo on Friday.
Devils: At Chicago on Saturday.
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