Whether or not you agree with the coaching decisions that put heavyweight participants on the ice for three simultaneous fights three seconds after the opening faceoff between the Devils and Rangers tonight, the tone was set.

That the Rangers eventually won 4-2, clinching a playoff spot and moving three points ahead of the surging Penguins in the East and the Atlantic Division, can be traced back to the very beginning.

For the second consecutive game between these rivals, the puck drop was ignored for a brawl. Last time, in a 4-1 Devils win in New Jersey on March 6, there were two bouts; This time, Devils coach Peter DeBoer sent out Cam Janssens, Eric Boulton and Ryan Carter and John Tortorella countered with defenseman Stu Bickel at center opposite Carter, who had re-configured Brandon Dubinsky’s nose in the previous loss, Brandon Prust and Mike Rupp.

Bickel’s match with Carter was fierce and blood from above Carter’s eye stained the ice. Rupp and Janssen threw down and Prust grappled with the larger Boulton as the Madison Square Garden crowd roared.

Although Tortorella declined to critique DeBoer for his tactics, or explain his response (“I was just coaching my team. I didn’t put the starting lineup in”) he did praise his three pugilists and the rest of his club.

“High marks for those guys,” he said. “I’m thrilled how they responded and I’m even more happy how the team responded. We lost some of that in some games when stuff like that happens. The other guys don’t walk in those guys’ shoes. But I thought we followed through. I see the juice in our team after that, we end up scoring a big goal pretty quickly.”

When the dust settled, the Rangers scored first as Derek Stepan’s pass squibbed to Dubinsky and he beat Martin Brodeur with a low, stick-side wrister at 1:11.

Unlike Tortorella, DeBoer didn’t mince words. "I guess in John's world you can come into our building and start your tough guys, but we can't do the same in here...He's either got short-term memory loss or he's a hypocrite."

As for the battles on the ice, the Rangers had leads of 2-0 and 3-1 but could not close it out until late, when Stepan’s deflection of Dubinsky’s long wrister with 1:10 remaining in regulation secured the two much-needed points. The Rangers have 97 points with 10 games remaining, the Penguins have 94, with 11 games left.

Dan Girardi and Mats Zuccarello scored the other goals for the Rangers and Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, who has two goals and six assists in the six-game series with the Devils, each had two assists.

Girardi had given the Rangers a 2-0 lead at 33 seconds of the second period when his point shot bounced off Brodeur’s extended right pad and Zuccarello scored his second in the last two games to put the Rangers up 3-1 on a power play, lifting a rebound over Brodeur from in front.

The expected Brodeur-Henrik Lundqvist duel never materialized, as each goaltender surrendered goals they’d want back. Brodeur finished with 23 saves; Lundqvist 17, including six in the scoreless third period when the Rangers, up 3-2, prevailed.

“We were pretty fired up going out when Torts saw their starting lineup,” said Lundqvist. “He changed (ours) a little bit. We knew what was coming, and it set the tone.”

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