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Hockey grabs centerstage in New York area with basketball teams struggling

New York Rangers center Derek Stepan, left, and

New York Rangers center Derek Stepan, left, and New Jersey Devils defenseman Adam Larsson, of Sweden, compete for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Newark, N.J. Credit: AP / Julio Cortez

NEWARK — There is no disputing that basketball is more widely popular than hockey in these parts, as it is in most parts of the United States.

Hey, that’s OK. Being a free country means having the freedom to be wrong in one’s sports preferences.

But this is a golden mini-era for those of us who know better, and once again come spring New York should be pleased to have its hockey house in order, what with the first Gotham-free NBA playoffs since 2010 now highly likely.

Tuesday night, the local ice show made a visit across the Hudson to the Prudential Center, where the Devils took an important step forward from the fringe of the postseason picture, and the Rangers cooled off near the end of a hot month.

Net result: A mere seven points separate the second- through fifth-place teams in the NHL Metropolitan Division, with three of the four playing home games within short train rides of one another.

The Rangers had anticipated the Devils might play like a desperate team Tuesday night, and so they did.

“You could tell they were hungry,” Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said after the Devils’ 5-2 victory. “We had an opportunity to distance ourselves from them a little bit, but we didn’t grab that opportunity.”

The loss dropped the Rangers to 7-2-1 in their past 10 games, a record that is nothing to sneeze at. And yet the flop in Newark was a spectacular one, lowlighted by a second period in which the Devils had a 17-5 advantage in shots and only Lundqvist’s acrobatics kept things from getting completely out of hand.

Coach Alain Vigneault called it perhaps the Rangers’ worst period of the season and declined to use the absences of injured defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal as an excuse.

“I don’t know what happened, seriously,” said Lundqvist, who could not remember a game this season with so many breakaways and two-on-one rushes in what certainly was an entertaining affair. “I don’t have a good explanation for it.”

Said Derek Stepan: “Really, really strong first period, one of our best starts of the year. And then a really, really bad second period.”

The Rangers led 2-1 after one, trailed 3-2 after two and never got going in a third period that began with them squandering about 7 ½ of the first eight minutes killing penalties.

Still, with 74 points the Rangers remain in fine shape to make the Stanley Cup tournament for a sixth season in a row, which would be their longest such streak since they made it 10 consecutive years from 1977-78 through 1986-87 — an era when qualifying was easier than it is now.

Even better, if the season ended today, the Rangers would face the Islanders in the first round in the first postseason renewal of the New York area’s best pro sports rivalry since 1994. That matchup would be a huge boost in the Islanders’ push for relevance in their first season in Brooklyn.

Fortunately for fans, the season does not end today, because the Eastern Conference in general and the local teams in particular seem headed for a weeks-long series of meaningful games down the stretch.

Sports talk radio hosts and newspaper headline writers historically treat hockey as a subject of last resort, but there is not much left to say or write about the Knicks or Nets, and we are more than a month away from a baseball game that counts.

So, no, we are not Hockeytown and never will be, but given what else is going on around here — or, more to the point, what isn’t going on around here — it’s nice to know that spring hope is eternal in at least one sport.

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