There aren’t many scenarios in which the Rangers would be able to make the playoffs without collecting as many points as possible on their current four-game stretch against the struggling Devils.
That fact wasn’t lost on the Blueshirts, who picked up their third straight win over the Devils, 6-3, on Saturday afternoon at the Garden, despite a valiant comeback effort from New Jersey. The victory brought the Rangers within four points of the fourth playoff spot in the East Division — currently occupied by the Bruins, who have two games in hand with a game against the first-place Capitals on Sunday afternoon.
The Rangers have said they understand there is no room for error with the final 13 games of the season. That ignited a persistent shoot-first mentality, a hungry power play and a short-fused roster over the past three games, in which the Rangers have outscored the Devils 13-3.
But that began to dissipate after the Rangers built a 4-0 lead through the beginning of the second period Saturday. The Devils, who are second-to-last in the East, showed what a team that has nothing to lose is capable of with three unanswered goals — including two within the first 6:38 of the third period.
Igor Shesterkin looked to be on his way to a third-straight shutout after an easy first period, but Devils center Michael McLeod ended the rookie netminder’s no-goal streak at 152:37 in the middle frame. Shesterkin had also gone 199:33 without surrendering a goal to the Devils this season.
The Devils pulled goalie Aaron Dell for one final push in the final minutes, but Pavel Buchnevich completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal, and Chris Kreider scored his first goal since March 28 to cap the game.
The Rangers poured on a three-goal first period for the second straight game against the Devils, two of which stemmed from 5-on-3 opportunities. After going without a power-play goal in the past two games, the Rangers went 2-for-3 in the first 20 minutes, consistently putting the puck on net and suffocating the Devils.
Before the domination with the man-advantage, Artemi Panarin forced a turnover in the neutral zone on his way to the bench, and sent Mika Zibanejad and Buchnevich on a 2-on-1 rush. Zibanejad faked the shot before dishing to Buchnevich for the 1-0 score at 7:26.
Devils defenseman Damon Severson took a holding penalty to prevent Brett Howden from jumping out on a breakaway before the Devils were called for too many men on the ice. A one-timer from Ryan Strome ended the 5-on-3 stretch and Buchnevich netted his second of the day to become the Rangers’ leading scorer with 18 goals this season.
Panarin extended the Rangers’ lead 32 seconds into the second period with a wrist shot on the rush to make it a 4-0 game. The goal completed Panarin’s eighth three-point performance at home this season, a feat that only Jaromir Jagr and Mark Messier have accomplished since 1990-91.
The Rangers look to complete the sweep and keep their postseason hopes alive on Sunday at Prudential Center.