With trade deadline, playoffs looming, Rangers get physical against Devils

NHL: New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils
John Jones-USA TODAY SportsCredit: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

NEWARK, N.J. – The New York Rangers sent a robust message to the New Jersey Devils, the rest of the NHL and, perhaps, their own general manager in a rousing 5-1 win Thursday at Prudential Center.

A team known for its high-end offensive prowess, superior goaltending and excellent special teams, can also dictate games with its physical play.

“I thought it was one of our most physical games,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “We were banging bodies. … I thought our guys were playing physical and that factored into the game.”

That this display of Rangers muscle took place against an opponent that eliminated them in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring should not go unnoticed. Nor that it happened roughly two weeks before the NHL trade deadline March 8.

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Physical play part of ‘recipe’ for Rangers’ success

NHL: New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils
John Jones-USA TODAY SportsCredit: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers appeared to relish playing physically against the highly-skilled Devils. Of course, the Rangers excelled in all areas Thursday, with some quick-strike goals, 39 saves from a rejuvenated Igor Shesterkin and a penalty kill that was a perfect 5-for-5, including a successful five-minute kill of a Matt Rempe major and Kaapo Kakko’s four-minute double minor.

So, their physical play was part of an impressive whole. But it was a big part, make no mistake.

“From the start of the game I thought we were on our toes, playing hard and playing fast,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said. “That’s a good recipe for us.”

Even after Rempe was assessed a match penalty for a high hit against Devils forward Nathan Bastian less than three minutes into the game, the Rangers remained committed to taking the body.

Nothing proved that more than when Trouba exploded through Bastian with an explosive, clean shoulder hit in the second period.

“If the guys like myself can step up and add that element to our game … it can make it not enjoyable to play against the Rangers,” Trouba explained.

It sure didn’t look like the Devils were enjoying themselves.

Though it’s a subjective statistic, the Rangers were credited with 26 hits Thursday, nine more than the Devils. Sixteen of their 18 skaters were credited with at least one hit. Only Mika Zibanejad and, ironically, Rempe were not.

As for the Rempe hit that left Bastian wobbly and bloodied, Laviolette isn’t so sure a match penalty was called for.

“That’s just a big man (6-foot-8),” Laviolette explained. “Everything is down, never lifted his arm … it’s just tough, he’s a big guy, he was full-steam ahead, kept everything down, tried to go through the body. It’s a tough call.”

Laviolette singled out Trouba, who had a team-high five hits, Will Cuylle and Adam Edstrom. But it clearly was a team effort. Which needs to continue into the postseason if the Rangers plan on making a deep run and contend for the Stanley Cup.

In recent seasons, the Rangers have added players with grit ahead of the trade deadline. Chis Drury has twice dealt for center Tyler Motte and reportedly a more rugged third-pair defenseman could be on New York’s radar this season.

But the Rangers made a statement with their play against the Devils, with the trade deadline and playoffs looming.

“When we are at our best, we’re playing with speed and physicality, which ‘Lavi’ says all the time,” Trouba said. “Honestly, I think that’s true, when you slow the game down and try to go East-West too much. When we’re on our toes, playing physical, playing hard, it’s no fun to play against us because we have guys that put the puck in the net, too.”

Just ask the Devils.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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