The Rangers were able to ease into their season-long, six-game road trip Thursday by holding a morning skate in their own practice rink, in Tarrytown before driving to Newark for the first of two straight games against the Devils at Prudential Center.
But David Quinn’s men were going to need to get up to speed quickly against Lindy Ruff’s Devils because, as Quinn himself pointed out, it is starting to get late in this 56-game season, and if the Rangers intend to make a charge for a playoff spot, they are going to need to start stringing some wins together. And soon.
"Yeah, I mean, without question, we feel like we've got to do that,’’ Quinn said. "We've got to go on a little bit of a run.’’
When the pandemic forced the NHL to re-align this season and play a division-only format, the East Division was widely touted as being the toughest of the league’s four divisions. And the standings are starting to take shape, with the Capitals, Islanders, Bruins, Flyers and Penguins sitting in the top five spots in the division. The top four teams will make the playoffs.
Entering play Thursday, the Rangers (8-9-3, 19 points), who had won four of their last six games, were six points behind the Penguins and Flyers, who were tied for fourth in the division.
"We understand what's at stake here,’’ Quinn said. "These are important games moving forward here. We're creeping up to the halfway point in the season, and we've got to start making some hay.’’
The Devils and Sabres are behind the sixth-place Rangers in the East Division standings, but despite their record, the Devils (7-9-2) had presented a challenge for the Rangers they hadn’t been able to solve. The Blueshirts had lost both their previous games this season against the Devils, including 5-2 on Feb. 16 in a game that was the Devils’ first after a two-week coronavirus shutdown. The Devils also beat the Rangers, 4-3, in the third game of the season.
"They've been the better team when we've played them, for the most part,’’ Quinn said. "We've just got to be more consistent with our effort; we've just got to match their speed; we've got to play a more honest game against them.
"They're defending well, they’ve got a quick team, they're fast,’’ he continued. "We've got finish checks. That doesn't mean you run out of your way to maul people, but you’ve got to win your battles, and you got to make sure that you play through people against this team to slow them down.’’
The Devils, whose captain, Nico Hischier, missed the last two games with an upper-body injury, had lost three straight entering Thursday. And Ruff, the former Rangers assistant coach, was shuffling his lines in an effort to create more offense.
The road trip will only get tougher for the Rangers once they leave New Jersey. After Thursday, the Rangers face the Devils again Saturday afternoon, and then they travel to Pittsburgh, where they play the first of two against the Penguins on Sunday night. They play the Penguins again Tuesday, then go to Boston for two games.
"The good news is with this format . . . the games you win this year they're certainly division-impactful, because that's all you're doing, is playing the people in your division,’’ Quinn said. "So you can make a little bit of hay.’’