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Rangers looking to leapfrog over the Devils in pivotal game

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A little more than a month ago, the notion of the Rangers battling it out with the Devils for second place in the Metropolitan Division at the halfway point of the season would’ve been classified as wishful thinking.

That’s because, just 33 days ago, the Devils led the entire NHL and were a whopping 14 points ahead of the Rangers, who were fifth in the division at the time. Well, that notion — through a combination of the Rangers’ complete shift in their team game and the Devils’ downturn — is now reality.

A regulation win over the Devils on Saturday afternoon at Prudential Center would allow the Rangers to leapfrog their rivals from across the Hudson into the No. 2 spot behind the Hurricanes. Both the Rangers and the Devils have seen firsthand just how quickly things can turn upside down in this league, which should make for a spirited matchup in a division in which essentially every game going forward has playoff implications.

The Rangers, however, aren’t letting the moment get too big.

A win for the Rangers against the Devils would be pivotal for the Blueshirts.
Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

“Everybody’s aware of it, of where the standings [are],” captain Jacob Trouba said after practice Friday afternoon at the Complexe Sportif Bell in Montreal. “It’s one of 82, at the same time, as much as it’s a big divisional game. Guys are aware, but I don’t think it’s a crazy, crazy motivational point. It is what it is.”

Focusing on their own game has been the Rangers’ mantra throughout the last 14 games, over which they have gone 11-2-1. It had to be. No team was going to pave the way for them to get back on track, which became abundantly clear after an egregious 5-2 loss to the bottom-feeding Blackhawks on Dec. 3.

“We didn’t have a great start to the season, played OK,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “I thought that, obviously, the last month has been really good for us and we just got to continue to play well. We’re playing more as a team, we’re playing more of a 200-foot game as a team and that’s why we’re getting success.”

The Devils started the season as if they had been shot out of a cannon by winning 19 of their first 23 games. They won 13 in a row at one point, all while averaging nearly four goals a game. The NHL was put on notice that the Devils had finally arrived after years of rebuilding, underachieving and missing the playoffs in nine of the last 10 seasons.

After going 3-9-1 since Dec. 9, however, the Devils have allowed the rest of the division and the league to catch up.

“I think we know what they’re about, how they play, they’ve obviously played really good hockey this year,” Trouba said. “Speed, offensive ability to take advantage of turnovers and transition is a strength of theirs. I think we all know that going in. It’s going to be a good game.”

No matter the state of the Devils, the Rangers can’t take the individuals at the other end of the ice lightly. Specifically Jack Hughes, who will bring a four-game scoring streak into the matinee. The 21-year-old Hughes, whom the Devils selected first overall in 2019 before the Rangers took Kaapo Kakko at No. 2, has scored in all but four of New Jersey’s past 12 games (10 goals, three assists).

“Watch him,” Gallant said of what the Rangers need to do against Hughes. “Keep him away from the puck. He’s having a great year. He’s a great, young player — but he’s not alone. They got a lot of good, young players on that hockey team. We just got to play our game. I worry about the way we play and things will take care of themselves.”

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