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 Monday night, the tone was set.

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

For the second straight 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 Janssen, Eric Boulton and Ryan Carter. John Tortorella countered with defenseman Stu Bickel at center opposite Carter (who reconfigured Brandon Dubinsky's nose in the previous matchup), along with 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 Garden crowd roared.

Although Tortorella declined to criticize 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."

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The Rangers scored first as Derek Stepan's pass squibbed to Dubinsky, who beat Martin Brodeur with a 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,'' DeBoer said ". . . He's either got short-term memory loss or he's a hypocrite.''

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 left in regulation secured 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 also scored for the Rangers. Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, who has two goals and six assists in six games against the Devils, had two assists each.

Girardi gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead at 33 seconds of the second period when his point shot bounced off Brodeur's right pad. 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.

The expected Brodeur-Henrik Lundqvist duel didn't materialize as each goalie surrendered goals he'd want back. Brodeur had 23 saves and Lundqvist 20.

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