As Rangers trounce Devils, the gap between the rivals in a crucial area is glaring

NEWARK, N.J. — New York needed only five seconds to do what New Jersey couldn’t in five minutes.

Shortly after the Devils failed to capitalize on a five-minute power play on Thursday, Curtis Lazar slashed Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin. It was the type of penalty coaches don’t like to see — one committed deep in the player’s offensive zone.

The Rangers quickly punished the Devils for the mistake. Vincent Trocheck lost a faceoff, but Chris Kreider grabbed the loose puck and passed to Mika Zibanejad, who was standing at the point with plenty of space to move. The center skated toward the net but decided not to shoot, instead trying to hit Kreider with a backdoor pass. The puck didn’t get through, but it bounced off Dawson Mercer’s stick, right back to Zibanejad. This time he shot, pinging the puck off the post and into the net.

“Even though it’s a five-minute five-on-four for them, we still have a lot to gain from it, and we did, really killing their momentum,” Zibanejad said following the Rangers’ 5-1 win. “And then, obviously getting goals when we got them, it was huge.”

New Jersey outshot the Rangers 40-18 and had the bulk of the five-on-five expected goals share, according to Natural Stat Trick, though New York coach Peter Laviolette felt his team did a solid job limiting the Devils’ chances. The special-teams battle made the difference, with New York getting Zibanejad’s early power-play goal and the Devils failing to convert on five attempts.

Laviolette said it might have been one of the Rangers’ best penalty-killing performances of the year and he liked how his players tried to attack loose pucks. On the other side, New Jersey is searching for answers while trying to claw itself into the playoff position.

“As a coaching staff, we’ve probably spent the majority of the time talking about special teams and the power play and, is there a better unit,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said.

The Rangers’ and Devils’ special-teams play reflected broader trends for the two teams. The Rangers rank fifth among NHL teams in both power-play conversion rate and penalty-kill success rate. When they’re at their best — as shown during their current nine-game winning streak — they can rely on both special-teams units to come through.

The Devils’ power play, meanwhile, is in a chasm of misery. The unit entered Thursday in a 6-for-37 rut, then failed to score in 11:52 of man-advantage time against New York.

“That’s just a ridiculous amount of time to kill penalties, so credit to the penalty kill for doing it,” Laviolette said.

“I think we really never got them to set,” Zibanejad added. “Just in general, especially after the first five-minute kill there, I think we had confidence in our kill and the way we were pressuring and the way we were taking time and space away.”

Shesterkin, who outdueled youngster Nico Daws, played a big part in snuffing out Devils chances, stopping all 12 of the shots he saw while New York was short-handed. But the Devils’ power play lacks the cohesion and danger of a group that features Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier and Tyler Toffoli.

The New Jersey unit desperately misses defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the normal quarterback who is out long-term with a torn pectoral muscle. Rookie defenseman Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec are running New Jersey’s two units in his absence, which is a big ask. Ruff said both have probably done a better job than expected, but young defensemen make mistakes and poor decisions at times.

“With no Doug Hamilton, our best choice right now probably is still Luke and Simon,” Ruff said. “I just think the play inside the zone, some of our decisions when we’ve had good looks and opportunities (needs to improve).”

The Devils’ five-minute power play came early in the first period after rookie Matt Rempe hit Nathan Bastian along the wall and drove his arm into the forward’s head. Jonas Siegenthaler took exception to the hit and gave Rempe a whack with his stick. Rempe responded by punching the defenseman in the face and knocking him to the ice. Both players earned roughing minors, and Rempe got an additional five minutes and a match penalty for the hit on Bastian.

During the five minutes, the best scoring chance for either team came from Kreider, who nearly scored a short-handed goal on the rush, ringing a shot off the post.

“We were just on our toes jumping and being aggressive, which historically have been our best PKs,” captain Jacob Trouba said. “When we get stagnant and waiting is when we get in a little bit of trouble.”

Later in the first, the Devils went on the power play again, this time because of an Artemi Panarin hook. But Erik Haula, shortly after getting robbed by Shesterkin, slashed Adam Fox, ending his team’s man advantage attempt early. During four-on-four play, Rangers forward Jonny Brodzinski (fresh off his contract extension) forced a Luke Hughes turnover deep in the Devils’ zone, and the puck went right to Alexis Lafreniere in the slot. He whipped it without hesitation into the net. For the second time in the period, the Devils had followed up a poor power play effort by allowing a goal.

After a Kreider goal created in part because of a long Shesterkin pass to Panarin, the Devils had a chance to get back into the game when Kaapo Kakko high-sticked Simon Nemec and drew blood. But for the second time in the evening, the Devils couldn’t capitalize on a long power play, going scoreless in four minutes with the man advantage. After the successful Rangers kill, Alexis Lafreniere netted his second of the night, splitting two defenders and finishing past Daws.

“We had some good opportunities to make some headway for our group and some serious momentum, and we didn’t do that,” New Jersey’s Jack Hughes said.

Special teams trends can change quickly. The Rangers’ power play struggled throughout the team’s rough January and even into the successful start of February, and now they have power-play goals in three of their past four games. The Devils, meanwhile, had the league’s best power play over the first two months of the season. Now they’re desperately searching for answers.

Ruff made a mid-game power-play change, sitting Jesper Bratt — the team’s representative at the All-Star Game — in favor of Dawson Mercer, who joined Luke Hughes, Jack Hughes, Tyler Toffoli and Nico Hiscer on the top unit.

“We’ll go through the whole thing again and just try to keep getting better,” Ruff said.

With less than one third of the season remaining, the Devils and Rangers sit in drastically different spots. New York is tied with Boston atop the Eastern Conference, and New Jersey is 11th in point percentage. One of the two looks far more confident on special teams.

“We have, obviously, a lot of trust in our power play to do great things,” Trouba said. “If we get into special-teams games, I think the PK knows that if we can do a good job, our power play is going to get a couple.”

(Photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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