Kovalchuk and the Devils jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the first. GETTY IMAGES
NEW YORK – There was nothing at stake for the Devils in Saturday’s meeting with the Rangers except a chance to turn off the lights on Broadway for the summer.
Ilya Kovalchuk had them rolling in the first period, assisting on Nick Palmieri’s goal for an early lead. Kovalchuk added his team-leading 31st with 41.8 seconds left in the frame for a 2-1 advantage after one.
But it was do-or-die for the Rangers, who faced eliminated from playoff contention with a regulation loss. They rallied for four unanswered goals as the Devils fell, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers would officially clinch eighth place with a Carolina loss of any kind Saturday night, when the Hurricanes host Tampa Bay.
“I think you have to give them credit,” said Martin Brodeur, who made 24 saves. “Their lives in the playoffs were at stake and they had a little slow start, but they really picked it up in the second. They played really hard. They got some goals that they went to the net really hard [for]. They got rewarded from it.”
We wanted to win this hockey game, no question about it, and have the opportunity to have them not play in the playoffs.- Patrik Elias
With the Devils out of the playoffs for the first time since 1996, Brodeur won’t be tuning in to find out who finishes eighth.
“I don’t like both teams,” he said with a laugh. “That’s honest. Carolina’s been hard for us in the playoffs and, well, the Rangers are the Rangers, so it doesn’t really matter. I won’t be watching the [Hurricanes] game, put it this way.”
It didn’t help that the Devils were missing several regulars. They were without forward Dainius Zubrus (upper body), and defensemen Colin White and Anton Volchenkov (both lower body). Zach Parise, who returned from a knee injury last Saturday, is done for the season.
Though they had downplayed the opportunity to knock off the Rangers, this was a game the Devils wanted.
“The rivalry is there, no question about it,” said a disappointed Patrik Elias. “Doesn’t matter in what position the teams are. We wanted to win this hockey game, no question about it, and have the opportunity to have them not play in the playoffs. That would be satisfying because we’re not there, obviously.”
The Devils (37-39-5) close out the 2010-11 campaign Sunday at 3 p.m., when they host Boston. They will finish under .500 for the first time since 1991, ending the second-longest active streak of .500-plus seasons at 18. (Detroit, 19)
Bad line changes cost them on the Rangers’ second and fourth goals.
“I thought we played our game,” Jacques Lemaire said. “I thought we came out well. We came out to play the best we can. I think we did for two periods, really. Take the two bad changes that we had. Besides that, I thought we really played well.”
The game featured a playoff-type buzz, which the Devils successfully quieted in the first. But New York’s three-goal second period got the crowd back into it.
“You’re not home, the fans fed from these two mistakes: bad changes,” Lemaire said. “Then the players, they get excited, they play better. On your part, you’re not as sharp, you’re not as good. You’re affected mentally.”
Palmieri’s ninth opened the scoring just 2:03 in. Kovalchuk got a pass out of the corner from Travis Zajac, and snapped the puck toward the net. Palmieri got a stick on it for his second goal in five games.
"We talked before the game, I think we owed our fans for that season," Kovalchuk said. "They were right behind us all season long. We went through a lot and that game was kind of for them. We tried to [win]. It's always a big rivalry so we were just thinking about ourselves and we really wanted to win this game."
Chris Drury responded 1:11 later. With the Rangers pressuring, Erik Christensen’s shot went off Jay Leach and found Drury for a backhander at 3:14. It was Drury’s first goal of the season, and first in exactly one year. He returned Saturday after a 27-game absence (knee).
Kovalchuk put the Devils back on top. He had a shot blocked at the left circle, but regathered the loose puck and fired it over Henrik Lundqvist’s right shoulder with 41.8 seconds left in the first.
“The first period I thought we played OK,” Elias said. “The pace of the game was great from both teams. Felt like a playoff game, with a lot of hitting and everything. Second period, we got stuck in our zone, they had chances. We made bad changes, our line a couple of times, and it ended up in our goal.”
The Rangers struck for the next four, including Wojtek Wolski’s tally at 1:52 of the second. The Devils got caught in a line change and Wolski got the puck for a 2-on-1. His shot went off Henrik Tallinder’s stick and past Brodeur to knot things at 2-2.
“When teams are desperate and play hard, things like that will happen because they do drive the net, they do different things, because they’re in a different situation than we are,” Brodeur said.
Ryan McDonagh’s first career goal put the Rangers ahead for good at 11:59 of the second.
Tallinder had a pass hop over his stick at the point, and was pressured in the neutral zone by Vinny Prospal. He passed back to Brodeur, and the Devils wound up pinned in their own zone. Prospal eventually found McDonagh at the right circle for a wrister over Brodeur’s catching glove.
Brandon Prust increased the Rangers lead to 4-2 when he jammed home a Brandon Dubinsky rebound at 16:06.
“At a time, we were a little soft in front of the net,” Lemaire said. “On [Prust’s] goal, he made the first save, they came in [and scored], so you can’t really blame the goalie for that. Overall, I think we were fine.”
But the poor line changes stuck with Lemaire.
“We’re a team that works so hard to get a goal,” he said. “And then you go on and change four guys come to the bench, like, ‘OK, timeout, we’re going to change.’ That type of change. With experienced players on the ice. You have to get frustrated with this. Besides that, I thought the guys tried hard, they played their game. We played good.”
Prospal scored in the third for New York’s fifth goal. Anssi Salmela got caught pinching along the left wall. Dan Girardi’s pass for Artem Anisimov created a 2-on-1, and Prospal put in Anisimov’s set-up at 10:49.
"You could tell after we got down, it was a different game," Brodeur said. "The jump of guys, and stuff. We made a few mistakes but I think when you play a team that's desperate, they'll make you make mistakes. I think it's two different mentalities of the game. We're trying to be kind of, the spoiler. These guys are fighting for their lives. They created their chances."
Lemaire said he hadn’t decided which goalie he’d use in Sunday’s finale. Brodeur just wants to finish on a positive.
“Just play well,” Brodeur said. “Sitting there during the game today, hockey’s fun. The atmosphere early on, it was like playoff hockey even though we knew we were going home. That was the type of feeling. Hopefully, our fans will get into it [Sunday], we’ll give them a reason to get into it and have a fun game for the last game we’re going to play this year.”
Fan Appreciation Day The Devils will host their annual Fan Appreciation Day at Prudential Center on Sunday.
Starting at noon on Championship Plaza, the team will host a Fan Fest featuring entertainment by Shorty Long and the Jersey Horns as well as food, games and activities.
Everyone attending the game will receive a scratch-off ticket redeemable for Devils prizes.