Rangers-Devils was at or near the top for the most-anticipated first-round series among hockey aficionados when the Stanley Cup playoffs began.
But as the teams met for Game 4 on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, an outside development had added even more import to the series.
Remember, the Rangers-Devils winner will meet the Islanders or Hurricanes next, and it appears that if the Islanders fail to advance, they might take half the Carolina roster with them.
The latest was the loss of top-line wing Jack Drury, who left Sunday’s Hurricanes-Islanders Game 4 after being driven face-first into the boards by Ryan Pulock. He is listed as day-to-day.
In Game 2, another top forward, Teuvo Teravainen, suffered a broken hand when struck by the stick of the Islanders’ Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
Carolina was so out of options it turned to AHL call-up Mackenzie MacEachern to fill in for Drury on the first line in Game 4, and he had a goal and an assist in a 5-2 victory in his first NHL game this season.
Top six forwards Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty already are out for the season for Carolina.
The point here is whether the banged-up Hurricanes, currently up 3-1, advance or the Islanders win three in a row and survive a grueling seven games, the winner of Rangers-Devils will be heavily favored in the second round.
And the winner of that series could well face the powerful Bruins or perhaps the Maple Leafs in the conference finals.
An Original Six matchup in the league semifinals between the Rangers and either of those teams would be a delicious boost for the NHL and its media partners.
There are no guarantees, of course, in life and even more so in hockey. But on paper, at least, the Rangers’ side of the Eastern Conference draw is getting more favorable by the day.
Before Monday night’s game, coach Gerard Gallant admitted to watching the Islanders-Hurricanes game more closely than others as he flipped between hockey and baseball on a Rangers off day Sunday.
“When you watch a Carolina game you do a little bit of homework, obviously,” he said, then added it wasn’t much, just taking a few notes.
Gallant knew Round Two only is theoretical at this point.
Mika Zibanejad told Newsday before Game 4 that he enjoys watching other teams’ playoff series, but for entertainment, not research.
“Some series are more fun to watch than others, in terms of the teams that play or if you have someone that you know on this team,” he said. “But it’s fun."
Zibanejad said Islanders-Hurricanes is the series he has watched the least.
Why? “I think it’s been dinner time around then and then the other game starts, and you catch the end of [the Islanders],” he said, smiling.
By that point he sensed where my conversational path was headed and took a detour away from any suggestion the Rangers might be peeking into the future.
“We don’t think about it that way,” he said. “We have Jersey in front of us. That’s our main focus. It’s fun to watch other playoff games to see how they are, but we’re not thinking ahead by any means. It’s just making sure we take care of Game 4. We’ll talk after.”
The Rangers were trying to break a pattern in which the road team won the first three games — part of the success road teams around the league are having early in these playoffs.
“Obviously, we want to take care of home ice,” Zibanejad said. “With the crowd we had last game, obviously, and that we always have, we try to take advantage of the energy we get from them.”
Patrick Kane, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with Chicago, said of his first home playoff game as a Ranger, “Just coming onto the ice for the last game, it gives you chills. It’s an exciting place to play.”
A loss in Game 4 would guarantee a Game 6 against the Devils at the Garden on Saturday.
A win would put the Rangers in position to clinch the series on Thursday and to next play at home against Carolina for Games 3 and 4 of the second round, or the Islanders for Games 1 and 2.
In either scenario, they would be favored. Now more than ever.