The New York Rangers wouldn’t go down in Game 4 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals without a fight.
In a much larger sense, the New Jersey Devils refused to let their hated Atlantic Division rivals grab a series stranglehold.
As tempers ultimately flared between not only the teams’ players, but also their among head coaches, New Jersey rode a fast start to a 4-1 home victory at the Prudential Center in Newark on Monday night, to reduce the best-of-seven battle for best in the East to a best-of three clash.
Ensuring that New York would fail to take a two-game lead in a series for the seventh time in as many attempts this postseason, the sixth-seeded Devils jumped on the top-seeded Rangers early, with eight of the game’s first ten scoring chances, 12 of the initial 15 shots on goal, and a pair of scores within the opening dozen minutes, just 3:49 apart.
The first of those came from defenseman Brent Salvador (one goal, one assist) 8:10 into the game, off of assists by right winger Dave Clarkson (one assist) and left winger Alexi Ponikarovsky (one assist). Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (26 saves), who allowed as many goals in Game 4 as he did in the prior three games of the series combined, was screened by his own teammate, defenseman Anton Stralman (no points) on a low wrist shot by Salvador from just inside the left point. The puck deflected off of Stralman’s left skate and between Lundqvist’s legs, although it appeared that Salvador’s shot would have found the net even without the help of Stralman’s foot.
Just 1:16 later, the first fight of the series took place between New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh (no points, five penalty minutes) and New Jersey center Adam Henrique (one assist, five penalty minutes).
The Devils’ top three goal scorers this postseason each had a hand in putting the game away.
Left winger Ilya Kovalchuk (one assist), who entered the game with a team-leading six playoff goals this year, didn’t score on Monday night, but he notched his team-high eighth assist of this year’s playoffs on New Jersey’s third goal, scored by left winger Zach Parise (two goals, one assist).
Parise meanwhile, closed the scoring with a late empty-net goal (his six of the postseason) and had a great assist on the Devils’ second goal, the sixth of the playoffs for center Travis Zajac (one goal).
After center Dainius Zubrus (one assist) sent a puck along the right boards, Parise hustled to chase it down and managed to skate between the boards and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (one assist, two penalty minutes) before sending a perfect crossing pass to a streaking Zajac coming down the middle. The puck barely went by the outstretched stick of defenseman Dan Girardi (no points) who made a diving attempt to break up the pass, before the puck landed on the stick of Zajac, who one-timed the second goal of the game up and to the left of Lundqvist at the 11:59 mark of the opening period.
New York picked up its play, taking the final four shots of the frame and outshooting New Jersey 11-9 in the middle period, but still trailed 2-0 heading into the final 20 minutes.
A high-sticking penalty by center Derek Stepan (no points, two penalty minutes) 2:37 into the third period led directly to the Devils’ third goal just four seconds later, when Kovalchuk slapped a hard shot off a faceoff from the left circle that Lundqvist, who posted shutouts in Games 1 and 3 of the series, couldn’t handle. Parise, standing in the crease, alertly smacked the rebound through Lundqvist’s legs for the game’s only power play goal.
New Jersey failed to score on its other three man-advantage opportunities, which included a four-minute power play and a brief 5-on-3 chance, but the Devils only faced one power play against them, which they killed off successfully.
The Rangers finally broke through with their only goal, to get to within 3-1 with 5:05 left in the game, when center Brad Richards (one assist) and Del Zotto assisted on a long wrist shot from the right wing by left winger Ruslan Fedetenko (one goal) that beat goaltender Martin Brodeur (28 saves) to his right.
Fedetenko’s goal prevented Brodeur from adding to his league-record 24 career playoff shutouts, but the 40-year-old future hall of famer did post his 109th career postseason win, which ranks second all-time behind Patrick Roy’s 151.
A save in the final minutes by Brodeur simultaneously gave him a personal league record while denying New York another. The 40-year-old future hall of famer deflected a shot over the top of the goal and into the corner to his left where Salvador scooped it up and passed along the boards to Parise, who was simply trying to clear the puck out of the Devils’ zone. Parise weakly got his stick on it, but it was enough to roll the puck on its edge all the way into the Rangers’ empty net to close the scoring with 1:29 remaining.
Brodeur was awarded his fourth assist of the playoffs – a single-season record for a goalie – on a goal which barred New York from becoming the first NHL team to allow fewer than four goals in 18 straight postseason games.
Relatively clean play through the first three games of the series gave way to a penalty box parade in Game 4 as the Rangers’ frustrations boiled over after the Devils took their three-goal lead.
The teams combined for 66 penalty minutes (43 for New York), including more penalty minutes (48) in the third period of Game 4 alone, than in the first three games of the series combined (44 total, 24 for the Rangers). New York’s biggest loss of composure came when left winger Mike Rupp (no points), who scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for New Jersey in 2003, drew a game misconduct penalty for an unprovoked punch thrown at his former teammate Brodeur during a brief stoppage of play with 13:42 left in the game.
Shortly thereafter, each head coach – the Devils’ Peter DeBoer and the Rangers’ John Tortorella – began shouting vehemently at each other where two team’s benches joined at mid-ice. That was a continuation of an argument the two had through the media following Game 3, with each accusing the other team of delivering some questionable hits and using dirty tactics.
That bad blood was nothing new, even if the animosity wasn’t seen during the playoffs until Game 4. Fights occurred in five of the six regular season meetings between the teams this year, including slugfests that occurred within the first three seconds in three of those games, and one more that happened within the first four minutes of another game.
In the end, New York’s third straight series in which it won Games 1 and 3 but lost Games 2 and 4, all while playing the bottom three seeds in its conference, have the Eastern finals pointing toward a third straight Game 7 for the East’s best seed, and toward a finish like the last time the Rangers and Devils met in the same round, in 1994. Back then, New Jersey likewise took Game 4 at home, on the same date (May 21st), before New York went on to win one of the most memorable conference finals ever with a double overtime Game 7 victory.
Before that however, the next step in what has again become a very heated rivalry, is Game 5, as the series moves back to Madison Square Garden in New York on Wednesday at 8 pm ET.