New York Rangers right wing Ryan Callahan (24) scores a...

New York Rangers right wing Ryan Callahan (24) scores a second period power play goal against New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur (30) at Madison Square Garden. (Oct. 24, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Christopher Pasatieri

The Rangers continued to build last night. The Devils continued to look like a dismantled empire, a shell of what Lou Lamoriello once built.

With a third straight win on the strength of tight five-man play and good goaltending, John Tortorella's team is jelling in the best possible way: The Rangers didn't sacrifice system for talent this past offseason, didn't reach for the stars and shake up a team that missed the playoffs and seemingly was full of holes.

No, that was their rivals across the Hudson who did that, and last night was another step further into a real mess that the Devils have become. Ilya Kovalchuk, the 17-year, $100-million man, returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch on Saturday.

Neither Kovalchuk nor rookie head coach John MacLean had much to say about the one-game benching, both saying it was behind them; still very much in the present is what the summerlong pursuit of Kovalchuk has done to a Devils team that has always put its best skate forward in the regular season.

They were always the toughest to play against, they always had no-name guys like Jay Pandolfo and Mike Mottau and Johnny Oduya to eat up big minutes and do the dirty work. With an owner looking to make a splash and put fans in the sometimes empty seats in the Prudential Center, the Devils traded for Kovalchuk in February, failed to get out of the first round with him and then went to the mat with the NHL to squeeze him in under the salary cap.

What's left is what the Rangers used to try to do: Surround a few highly paid stars with ill-fitting parts or young players brought up too fast. The Devils jettisoned Mottau, Paul Martin and Oduya and added Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, but forgot the system that made them great.

Last night, with Volchenkov still out, the defense was three rookies, over-the-hill Colin White, Tallinder and Andy Greene. They used to be able to plug one or two new faces in and keep churning; White and Greene are the only Devils who played meaningful time last season, and the breakdowns are obvious.

Kovalchuk got them within a goal, but the benching didn't seem to have a major effect. When he was with the Thrashers, Kovalchuk would come to Madison Square Garden and dominate, causing fans to hold their breath every time he wound up. Now Kovalchuk looks out of place, and worse, the focus on him offensively seems to have diminished Zach Parise, the Devils' true star. The Devils have just 15 goals in nine games and not enough defense to withstand the drought.

The Rangers, meanwhile, are without their biggest star, Marian Gaborik, yet they are plugging away and winning games the way they need to, stars or no.

"We have the system down pretty good: If you don't play it, you'll stick out like a sore thumb," Sean Avery said. Avery once used his mouth to throw Marty Brodeur and Kovalchuk off their games; last night, Avery (mostly) used his legs to drive to loose pucks, just like the rest of his team.

The Rangers will have to grind out the wins as they've done in this three-game stretch. They will have to cycle lines and defensemen and rely on Henrik Lundqvist, who made three brilliant saves in the final 5:52 to preserve the win. This is the only way.

It was once the Devils' way, Lamoriello's way, a system and a franchise to be emulated everywhere.

While the Devils try to find their way back, the Rangers are building something pretty good.

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Rangers,

MSG and Cablevision.

Cablevision owns Newsday.