Wild Atlantic finish puts Devils on top; Flyers, Rangers on road

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NEW YORK (AP) – Michael Nylander sat slumped at his stall and stared ahead with a blank look on his face.

The gaze was one of disappointment and shock. And who could blame the New York forward.

He and the Rangers had just dropped their fifth straight game and fell from the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference all the way to sixth in a matter of moments. The Atlantic Division title slipped through their hands at the finish line.

“We had the division on the line for many games now and we didn’t come through,” Nylander said. “It’s starting from zero again now here. The next game is a new season.”

He meant the playoffs but he could’ve been talking about the crazy finish that was about to occur.

The real surprise was that it wasn’t the Philadelphia Flyers who stole the crown from the Rangers, but instead the hard-charging New Jersey Devils.

For most of the season, the Rangers sat in first place and they still held the lofty spot Tuesday night when they hit the ice for the finale. All they had to do to wrap up their first division title in 12 years was beat Ottawa.

Even when it seemed as though they would fall short, the Rangers still were in good shape to finish first because the Devils and Flyers also were losing.

The one-point lead they carried into the night had a chance to stand up.

Not so fast.

Ottawa stretched its lead to 4-1 early in the third period about the time the Flyers tied and went ahead of the Islanders. Philadelphia was aware that the division was there for the taking.

During the second intermission, Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock walked into the dressing room and wrote the out-of-town scores on the board – Senators 2, Rangers 1; Canadiens 2, Devils 0.

There was nothing else to say.

“We knew what was at stake,” Philadelphia forward R.J. Umberger said. “It was the most fired up we’ve been before a period all season.”

The Rangers fell behind 5-1 in the waning moments, and the Flyers scored four times in the final period to dispatch the already eliminated Islanders.

That pushed the Flyers into first place, a point ahead of the Rangers and two in front of the Devils – who were on the way to having their 10-game winning streak snapped.

Yet, the most exciting part of the night still lay ahead. Philadelphia still needed the Devils to lose because a tie in points would fall in favor of New Jersey.

Never since the NHL went to a two-conference, four-division format had a team come from so far behind to win a division title. New Jersey trailed Philadelphia by 19 points on Jan. 6 and was perilously close to missing the playoffs with just a few weeks left in the season.

Trailing Montreal 3-0 late in the second period Tuesday night, New Jersey cut the deficit to two goals before the intermission.

Rangers players were just starting to talk to reporters about their monumental collapse that denied them their first division title since 1994 and would force them to start their first postseason appearance in nine years on the road.

Yes, going to Buffalo to face the Sabres was going to be a tough task.

Not so fast.

A buzz permeated over the din of interviews.

“Did you hear? The Devils are only down 3-2.”

The news hadn’t circled the room when someone said, “Now it’s tied, 3-3.”

As surprised as the throng at Madison Square Garden was, it didn’t compare to the scene in the visitors’ dressing room at Nassau Coliseum.

There the Flyers were watching the Devils rally against the Canadiens.

Philadelphia thought it shook off a pair of blowout losses at New Jersey in the final week of the season and was about to skate off with the division title and home ice in the first round against the streaking Devils.

Not so fast.

With 5:05 left, Patrik Elias scored in Montreal to tie it. Just 2:42 later, the Devils were ahead 4-3 on Jamie Langenbrunner’s goal. Sixth place suddenly became third.

“We’re all taken aback and a little bit in shock because it was done. It was over,” Flyers forward Mike Knuble said.

Rangers coach Tom Renney stepped out of his office and saw reporters watching the TV there, too.

He knew the score and knew that his slumping club was about to be locked into a matchup with the Devils, the first NHL team to run off 11 straight wins at the end of the season.

He was ready for his postgame news conference and didn’t care if anyone pulled themselves away from the TV to ask him questions about how the Rangers were going to bounce back from a terrible finish.

The shocking turn of events in the season’s final hours moved the Rangers down three spots, launched the Devils up two places, and raised the Flyers up a seed from where they started the day.

“We figured out a little bit the last 11 games and the last few weeks that we like to play and what we have to do to be successful,” Devils forward Patrik Elias said.

“We’ve just got to keep it going.”

Caught in the shuffle were the Buffalo Sabres, who were locked into fourth place in the East. They waited around after a 4-0 win in Carolina to see who they would play next. It looked like the Rangers but ended up being the Flyers.

“It was kind of a strange 10 or 15 minutes,” Sabres forward Chris Drury said. “Whoever we got, we got. Either way, I think we’ll be ready.”

AP-ES-04-19-06 1826EDT

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