Another slow start has the New York Rangers in desperate need of a huge finish.
One game after failing to recover from a 2-0 first-period deficit in a Game 4 loss to the New Jersey Devils, the Rangers spotted their Atlantic Division rivals a 3-0 lead in the first ten minutes at a sold out Madison Square Garden.
Although top-seeded New York was able to erase that deficit by the first minute of the third period, sixth-seeded New Jersey answered with a pair of goals (including an empty-net score) in the final 4:24 to win a pivotal Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals, 5-3, and move to within one more victory of reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
As a result, the Rangers find themselves in the same position they were in 18 years ago – the last time they reached the Cup finals and won an NHL title.
Back then, New York similarly lost Game 5 of the Eastern finals to New Jersey at home before Ranger captain Mark Messier famously followed through on his Game 6 guarantee by rallying his team for a 4-2 road victory with a personal third-period hat trick to force a Game 7 in which the Rangers edged the Devils in double overtime to capture the Eastern Conference crown.
This year, Game 6 will again be in New Jersey, on the 18th anniversary of the Messier-led win, and should New York win that contest on Friday night (starting at 8 pm ET), Game 7 would be back at the Garden on Sunday night, and just as it was in 1994, on May 27th.
For the Rangers to repeat their history from nearly two decades ago, they’ll have to begin their next game much better than they did on Wednesday night, when the Devils took the first four shots of the game and scored three goals on their first five shots.
New York native (from Rochester), right winger Stephen Gionta (one goal, one assist), started the scoring just 2:43 into the game, putting away a backhanded rebound off of a shot by defenseman Mark Fayne (two assists), in front of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (16 saves, four goals allowed), who wasn’t his usual ultra-sharp self for a second straight game.
After allowing just one goal per game and shutting New Jersey out twice over the first three games of the series, Lundqvist has given up seven goals over the past two games.
A lucky bounce in favor of the Devils only 90 seconds after Gionta’s goal made Lundqvist’s night even worse. Center Adam Henrique (one assist) sent a wrist shot toward the net from the right point which deflected off of each leg of left winger Patrik Elias (one goal) before getting past Lundqvist to give New Jersey a quick 2-0 lead before the capacity crowd’s seats were warm. With Elias’ back to the net, Henrique’s shot ricocheted like a pin ball, first off of Elias’ left leg, then off of his right one, before trickling to Lundqvist’s right and into the net.
Head coach John Tortorella immediately called a time out that seemed to have the effect the of galvanizing New York, which responded by getting the game’s next five shots on goal, but it was New Jersey that scored again after clearing its own zone.
A counter attack along the left boards began after defenseman Bryce Salvador (one assist) checked fellow defenseman Ryan McDonagh (no points) off the puck, leading to a two-on-one break the other way. Left winger Zach Parise (one goal, one assist) made a nice neutral zone crossing pass to center Travis Zajac, who carried the puck into the Rangers’ zone and beat Lundqvist to the far side, to Lundqvist’s right, 9:49 into the opening period. The goal was Zajac’s seventh of the playoffs to temporarily give him the team lead in scoring this postseason until Parise matched Zajac with his seventh postseason score this year on empty-net goal in the final minute.
Despite the shock of falling into such a large hole so fast, New York managed to control the play for much of the remainder of the period and for most of the one to follow, while chipping away at New Jersey’s surprising three-goal lead, but not until the home crowd got antsy – especially when right winger Marian Gaborik (one goal) missed a half-open goal from close range in front of the net, sailing a great scoring chance too high, over the top of the goal.
But, the Rangers got a lift from the return of a couple of Brandons – left winger Brandon Prust (one goal) and center Brandon Dubinsky (one assist).
While Dubinsky was a factor with his physical and aggressive play, Prust got New York on the board with his first career playoff goal, and changed the game’s momentum when he took a pass from left winger Ruslan Fedentko (one assist), after a New Jersey turnover at mid-ice along the boards. Prust eventually shoveled a backhander to the right of future hall of fame goaltender, 40-year old Martin Brodeur (28 saves, three goals allowed), to pull the Rangers to within 3-1 with 4:19 left in the period.
The majority of the action in the second period was in New Jersey’s end as New York, which held a 28-17 shot advantage for the game, took 11 of the first 13 shots of the frame while attacking offensively.
Just as the Devils used a break to get their second goal, the Rangers got a fortuitous deflection of their own to get closer, after Dubinsky fired the first shot of the period – one that was stopped by Brodeur and caromed to his right, into the corner.
Center Artem Anisimov (one assist) sent the puck from the left corner into the crease, where it glanced off of the right shin of right winger Ryan Callahan (one goal) to trim New Jersey’s lead to 3-2 just 32 seconds into the frame.
Officials reviewed the play to make sure Callahan didn’t kick the puck into the net, and the goal was correctly upheld – as was the Devils’ lead until the beginning moments of the final period, when Brodeur was done in by his own rule as the period got underway.
Enacted six years ago, primarily because of Brodeur’s adept skills at handling the puck away from the net, the trapezoid that was put in behind the goal prevented Brodeur from playing the puck to his right, toward the corner boards.
Brodeur left the net but then realized he couldn’t play the puck outside of the trapezoid. A hustling Gaborik took advantage and chased down the puck as Brodeur retreated back toward the net. From a tough angle, Gaborik shot the puck along the goal line, where it hit off of Brodeur’s left skate and barely squirted into the net to tie the game, 3-3, just 17 seconds into the period.
Later, center Brad Richards (one goal) avoided embarrassment when he tried to clear the puck around the boards but mistakenly sent it on his own net. A slightly-less-than routine stop by an alert Lundqvist saved the game for the moment.
However, following Gaborik’s goal and the momentum that was seized by New York, the game evened out for the next 15 minutes and ultimately, an aggressive fore check in the Rangers’ zone led to the game-winner for New Jersey.
Gionta chased down a puck that was dumped into the right corner and battled for it along the boards before he was able to pass it into the crease where center Ryan Carter (one goal) one-timed the puck past Lundqvist to put the Devils on top for good, 4-3.
It was already Carter’s third goal of the playoffs, after he scored just four in 72 regular season games – seven with Florida, and 65 with New Jersey, which picked Carter up on waivers in October.
The Rangers couldn’t muster any serious scoring opportunities after that and Parise ended their chances on an empty-net goal with 31.4 seconds remaining.
Even though New York allowed its highest number of goals since the playoffs began, and had blanked New Jersey 3-0 in Games 1 and 3, an optimistic Tortorella said, “I thought we probably played our best game of the series tonight.”
To still reach the goal of winning their fifth Stanley Cup championship and just their second since 1940, the Rangers will have to rally from a 3-2 deficit for the second time this postseason. They did that against eighth-seeded Ottawa in the first round, before beating seventh-seeded Washington in seven games during the conference semifinals.
In order to save their season yet again, the Rangers will have to overcome history and likely get back to an earlier trend that has recently eluded them.
No team has ever won a Stanley Cup after starting the playoffs with two Game 7’s – now, New York will have to win a third just to reach the finals. And, after beginning the playoffs by allowing fewer than four goals in a league record-tying 17 straight postseason games, the Rangers have suddenly given up four or more goals in each of their past two contests.
Those historical nuggets don’t matter much to New York right now though, as there’s only one year in the past – 1994 – that the Rangers would like to emulate.
The Devils meanwhile, with two chances to close out the series, will be seeking their first trip back the Cup finals since 2003, when they won their third league title.