* Rangers first East team to clinch playoffs
* Devils remain sixth in conference (adds details, quotes)
The puck had barely touched the ice for the opening face-off when gloves were dropped and fists started flying as the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils tore into each other in their NHL Eastern Conference clash on Monday.
The Rangers looked to get the best of the early battle, in which three skaters from each team squared off, and emerged with a 4-2 win that clinched a spot in the playoffs and maintained their conference lead.
New York's Mike Rupp, Brandon Prust and Stu Bickel traded punches with Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen and Ryan Carter of New Jersey to set off the early fireworks at Madison Square Garden.
Bickel's brawl with Carter did not stop when they hit the ice as the New York defenseman continued to throw punches. Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador was hit with a 10-minute misconduct penalty for trying to pull Bickel off the bloodied Carter.
"We're not going into the game saying, 'We've got to go and send a message.' We know what our team is about," Rupp told reporters.
"If they want to play that way, and think it will go really well that way, if they want to play an open game, I think we're built well in that area, too."
New York's Brandon Dubinsky scored a minute after calm was restored and Dan Girardi stretched the lead to 2-0 less than a minute into the second.
New Jersey's Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora netted later in the second, as did the Rangers' Mats Zuccarello, as the Rangers took a 3-2 lead into the final period.
New York's Derek Stepan made the game safe with a tip-in goal with 1:10 left.
The win snapped two straight losses for the Rangers (45-20-7) and moved them three points clear of surging Pittsburgh in the Atlantic division.
The Devils (41-27-5) remain sixth in the conference.
"It's our first time since I've been here, in six years, that we clinched (the playoffs) this early," Girardi said.
"It's a nice feeling knowing you'll be in the playoffs. We have to handle it the right way."
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