The New York Rangers had the lead in the series and in Game 2, until the New Jersey Devils changed the direction of a couple of shots and likewise, the course of the Eastern Conference finals.
Trailing 2-1 late in the second period at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, center Ryan Carter (one goal) deflected a shot by defenseman Bryce Salvador (two assists) to get New Jersey even, and early in the third period, right winger David Clarkson (one goal) did the same on a shot by center Adam Henrique (one assist) to provide what proved to be the game-winning score, as the visiting, sixth-seeded Devils silenced a sellout crowd with a 3-2 victory to even their best-of-seven series with the top-seeded Rangers at a game apiece.
Carter’s goal earned a trip to businesslike head coach John Tortorella’s doghouse for right winger Marian Gaborik, New York’s leading goal scorer (by far, with 41 scores) during the regular season. Tortorella was apparently upset at his star for failing to clear the puck out of the Rangers’ zone and for compounding that problem by not going along with his team’s trademark of blocking the shot taken by Salvador (two assists), which led to Carter’s tip-in. As a result, Gaborik (no points in 20 shifts and 15:21 of ice time) was benched for about 13 minutes as New York failed to score for the entire third period.
Right winger Steve Bernier (one assist), who took a boarding penalty which led to a key third-period goal that helped the Rangers win Game 1, redeemed himself when he assisted on Carter’s goal by feeding Salvador, who then fired straight away at the net. With his back to the net, Carter made a brilliant redirection of Salvador’s shot, putting his stick low and slightly to his left, to steer the puck to the left of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (24 saves, three goals against) and into the net with 1:51 left in the second period.
As nice as Carter’s deflection was, Clarkson’s was even tougher and better, as New Jersey worked the puck around the New York zone nicely, from left to right. Salvador and Henrique each posted their sixth assists of the postseason when Salvador set up Henrique for a drive from the right wing that appeared to be sailing left, just wide of the net, until Clarkson stuck his stick in the air, but low enough to avoid a high-sticking penalty, and rerouted the puck down and past Lundqvist, for the final goal of the game, 2:31 into the third period.
Prior to the Devils’ last two goals, it was the Rangers who scored in succession in the second period, to take their only lead, on goals by defenseman Marc Staal (one goal) and rookie center Chris Kreider (one goal), who continues to be a pleasant surprise for New York, scoring his fourth postseason goal after only joining the Rangers and the league three games into the postseason.
New York got a break when center Brad Richards (one assist) fired wide right off of a pass by defenseman Dan Girardi (one assist) and the puck caromed off of the boards behind the net and back in front of the net, where Staal was able to barely poke the puck just under the left pad of goaltender Martin Brodeur (25 saves, two goals against) to tie the game 1-1, just 2:23 into the second period.
Later, an interference penalty on center Travis Zajac (no points, one penalty) was costly for the Devils as center Artem Anisimov (one assist) fed defenseman Anton Stralman (one assist) who fired a shot from the right wing that was slightly touched in mid-air by the stick of Kreider, in front of the net, to the left of Brodeur. The 40-year-old, who won his 108th playoff game in his 19th season, couldn’t handle the fluttering puck as it went end-over-end and ever so slightly over his left arm to give the Rangers their only power play goal (in four chances) of the night, and their lone lead of the game, with 7:41 remaining in the period.
It was the only period of the three in which New York outshot New Jersey, as the Rangers held a 12-9 shot advantage over the middle 20 minutes after being the more aggressive team while taking the first six shots of the frame.
The opposite was true from an energy standpoint in the opening period, when the Devils outshot the Rangers 8-5 and took a 1-0 lead 13:39 into the game, as New Jersey’s leading goal scorer during both the regular season (37 goals) and the postseason (six goals), left winger Ilya Kovalchuk (one goal), blasted a shot from the left wing to the left of Lundqvist. The shot briefly found the net just inside the right post before immediately popping back out of the cage, for New Jersey’s only power play goal in three extra-man opportunities, making New York pay for a slashing penalty on center Brian Boyle (no points, one penalty) just 32 seconds earlier.
Although the Rangers, which had 26 of the 41 blocked shots in Game 1, threw themselves in front of 16 of the 23 shots that were blocked in Game 2, it was the one missing block from their best player –Gaborik – which turned the game and the series in an instant.
The Rangers however, have been down this road before, having won Game 1 while losing Game 2 in each of their two previous playoff rounds to reach the Eastern finals with their Atlantic Division rival Devils, after notching consecutive Game 7 victories.
While that more immediate history is on New York’s side, the Rangers will have to overcome some NHL history while attempting to be the first Stanley Cup winner after starting the postseason with a pair of Game 7 wins.
Each team will look to break the series tie with a victory as the series shifts to New Jersey for the next two games, beginning with Game 3 on Saturday afternoon at 1 pm ET.