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Among the Things the Rangers Punched Last Night: Their Playoff Ticket

Brandon Prust (8) of the New York Rangers fights Cam Janssen (25) of the New Jersey Devils as Stu Bickel (41) of the New York Rangers fights Ryan Carter (20) of the New Jersey Devils three seconds into the game on Monday, March 19, 2012, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (Jim McIsaac/Newsday/MCT) (Newscom TagID: krtphotoslive539942) [Photo via Newscom] Boy, that escalated quickly.

You know the old joke about going to fight and a hockey game breaking out? That’s basically the chronology of how last night’s Rangers-Devils game played out. First came the fighting: All six forwards on the ice to start the game dropped their gloves as soon as the puck was dropped — or perhaps more accurately, all six players who lined up as forwards, what with Stu Bickel taking the opening face-off and Brandon Dubinsky lining up as a defenseman. (Officially, those fights took place at 0:03, but really, they were inevitable as soon as the Devils — and then the Rangers — set their starting lineup.) But once the extreme viciousness of those opening seconds gave way to a more reasonable level of nastiness, a hockey game broke out, and the Rangers picked up two big points to extend their lead over the Penguins to three points.

Here's the video of the fight, in case you missed it (or just want to watch it again):

As you’d imagine, that donnybrook whipped the crowd into something of a frenzy, and the Rangers themselves responded nicely as well, starting the game strong and beating Martin Brodeur at 1:11 to take an early lead. (Brandon Dubinsky scored that first goal, and what a boost it would give this team if he finished the season strong.) The Rangers would never surrender that lead, with Dan Girardi scoring early in the second period to put his team up by two, Mats Zuccarello scoring a huge power play goal to give the Rangers a 3-1 cushion, and Derek Stepan sealing the game at 4-2 with 1:10 to play in the third. (This seems like a good place to mention that this wasn’t really a goal-tending dual between Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur — though Brodeur did make some big saves to keep the Devils within striking distance.)

The season series between these teams is finished now, and we’re sticking with what we said last month: The Rangers fan in us isn’t wild about seeing the Devils in a postseason series. We think the Rangers are the better team — they earned seven points in head-to-head match-ups this year, to the Devils’ six — but New Jersey is good enough to beat them in a best-of-seven, and at the very least, a long, hard-fought series between these teams would be especially draining. That said, the hockey fan in us realizes how entertaining such a series would be.

Speaking of the playoffs: The Rangers officially earned their postseason berth last night. And we don’t think we’re burying the lede here: We’ve known for some time this team was going to the playoffs and that all that would be determined in these final weeks is their seed. That said, it’s nice that simply getting into the playoffs isn’t worth celebrating the way it was, say, last year, when the Rangers didn’t punch their ticket until the season’s final weekend. (Or, for that matter, the way it would have been celebrated the year before that, had the Game 82 shootout in Philadelphia gone their way.) If one of the goals of this season — and this was certainly something we were hoping for — was to comfortably make the playoffs without having to sweat things out in the final week, then that mission has been accomplished. But there are more important missions ahead.

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Photo: Jim McIsaac/Newsday/MCT/Newscom