NEWARK – It was eerie.
Another Eastern Conference finals game was going into the third period with a tie, and, once again, the Rangers were looking anything but sharp. The crowd at the Prudential Center appeared to be in the middle of their afternoon nap, and it seemed only a matter of time before the Devils got the puck past Henrik Lundqvist. A snap shot by Dan Girardi found its way into the back of Brodeur’s net and suddenly the Rangers were in the game.
The game started out as a showdown between the Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk and Lundqvist. In game one, Kovalchuk failed to put the puck past
Lundqvist. In game two, Kovalchuk’s power play goal opened the score and set the tone for Devils’ victory. At the beginning of the second period of game three, Kovalchuk had a chance to put his team ahead on a breakaway, but Lundqvist had the last word on that one, denying one of the best of the 36 opportunities the Devils had in this game.
“I just tried to play my game. Being patient,” said Lundqvist in the post-game press conference. “He’s a good player. So every time you face players like that, you just try to be patient and wait for him to make the first move. And he had a couple of big chances. But I was a little lucky today, a couple times where I made the first move I still ended up making the save. That’s not going to happen all the time.”
Given how Kovalchuk is the Devils’ all-around go-to guy, the Rangers’ skaters need to be a lot more conscious of his movement on the ice. In the last year, the talented forward has shown incredible growth as part of the Devils. His skill, along with his intelligence and acute sense of the game, makes him a threat wherever and whenever he’s on the ice. His incredible patience and maturity assure that he’s there, impervious to frustration, when the time comes to step up for his team. In the play-offs, Kovalchuk leads his team in all scoring categories, with 6 goals and 7 assists, for a total of 13 points.
“The series has just begun,” said Kovalchuk after the game on Saturday. Come Monday, he is going to be ready and in front of the net, waiting to cash in on any opportunity given to him by the opponent.
With his second shutout of the series, Lundqvist is on top of his game. He has been so great, that many have suggested that the team relies on him too heavily. Devils head coach Peter DeBoer certainly seemed to agree with that assessment: “I think their goalie, you know, was the difference. We generated some opportunities, some zone time, moved the puck around well.
I thought we created some real good looks on it. When their goalie’s on like that, your goaltender is your best penalty killer, and I think that was the case tonight.” On the other side, Rangers head coach John Tortorella sees Lundqvist’s play as a representation of the whole team: “It’s a bit of our personality. I think Henrik, I’ve always said that about him, that’s a bit of who we are. And I think Henrik displays that, how he does compete. And he’s a great competitor as far as his preparation and as far as what he does for this hockey club.”
While Lundqvist’s incredible performance has kept the Rangers in the game 3, it does not make the game that much easier for the rest of the team, according to Carl Hagelin. “Obviously, the score is way better when he’s playing the way he is.” When asked if he thought the team relied on their goaltender too much, Hagelin said: ” He’s the core of our group, he’s our MVP. I don’t figure we rely on him too much. I think if we relied on him too much, we wouldn’t be here right now. There are some other good players on the team, that’s for sure. All I can say is that we’re very fortunate to have Hank in the back.”
Showing some of his greatest game all season, the Vezina, Hart, and Ted Lindsay Award nominee did not relax after the first or even the second goal scored by his teammates. In fact, to him, nothing was certain until the final two minutes of the game. “When we scored the empty netter, I could feel the victory,” said Lundqvist when asked to pinpoint the moment when he felt the Rangers were going to walk away one game up in the series. “Before that it was just too much time.
“And they kept coming.
“So it was a big relief when we got that one. Before that it felt like there were stretches, too, in the game where we had a tough time to get pucks out. But also there were minutes where we did a lot of good things. We created some chances and played really hard. So went back and forth. They had some chances in the second, and I felt like it was a good timeout by Torts, they came out flying there in the second created big chances. But we didn’t panic, and that’s the biggest thing. I think we had moments during the year where we got into some tough minutes, if you can call it that, but we didn’t panic, we kept our composure, kept playing the same way, and as a goalie, you know sooner or later it’s going to turn. It’s going to turn in our favor. We’re going to get a chance. We’re going to get a break. And that’s the feeling I had. In the third we came out big, made some really big plays and scored some really good goals for us.”
After Game 3, Dan Girardi is in the top three with three game-winning goals, along with the Devils’ David Clarkson and the Kings’ Dustin Brown. He is also third in points among the players of the Eastern Conference finals with 11, behind Brad Richards and Kovalchuk, who are tied for first with 13 points. They post identical numbers for goals, assists, and points, although Richards played three more games than Kovalchuk in the play-offs.
In the past five and a half weeks, it has been the same story for the Rangers in almost every game – whoever scores the first goal wins the game. It has been the case through all of the three games in the conference finals. In Game 2, the Devils came out strong and were able to win because they stayed with it throughout sixty minutes, despite falling behind midway through the second period. Nothing in this series had been expected. The Rangers have netted three power play goals – one in each game, while the Devils power play, potent throughout the season, only had one. If blocked shots are taken into account, the Devils outshot the Rangers by double in game 3, and yet lost by three goals.
With Brandon Prust suspended for one game for his elbow to Anton Volchenkov’s head in Game 3, adjustments will be made.
“I always say you earn your luck by working hard,” said Lundqvist in the press conference after Game 3.
Given how hard work paid off retroactively for the Rangers in Game 3, they will have to put forth some effort in Game 4.