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New Jersey Devils' Ryan Carter (20) celebrates his goal with teammates Stephen Gionta (11), Ilya Kovalchuk (17), Mark Fayne (29), and Andy Greene, hidden, against the New York Rangers during the third period in Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden in New York, May 23, 2012. (/Mike Segar/Reuters//Mike Segar/Reuters)
New Jersey Devils' Ryan Carter (20) celebrates his goal with teammates Stephen Gionta (11), Ilya Kovalchuk (17), Mark Fayne (29), and Andy Greene, hidden, against the New York Rangers during the third period in Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden in New York, May 23, 2012. (/Mike Segar/Reuters//Mike Segar/Reuters)

Roy MacGregor

Devils take series lead as Lundqvist fails to bail out slow-starting Rangers Add to ...

The only possible explanation is they forgot to put their clocks ahead this spring.

The way the New York Rangers have started most games these playoffs it is as if they’re stuck in traffic and call ahead to have the other teams start without them – no use wasting good ice.

Then, if goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can work his usual miracles while the Rangers get their wonky first periods out of the way, they figure they will still have a chance.

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And usually they have, having won their first two series in seven games apiece and having taken the New Jersey Devils to a fifth game in the eastern conference finals.

Wednesday night in front of their home Madison Square Garden fans, the Rangers offered up yet another listless, unfocussed first period – and this time had no King Henrik to rule that the game would not really begin until his teammates were dressed and ready.

In the end they fell 5-3 to the Devils, allowing the Devils to take a three-games-to-two lead in this best of seven series, with New Jersey having a chance to close out the series Friday at home. The Los Angeles Kings are already in the Stanley Cup final, awaiting a victor from one side or the other of the Hudson River.

“We stole this one,” said the Devils’ Patrik Elias. They did indeed.

“It wasn’t our best game,” added New Jersey captain Zach Parise. “But we snuck out of here with a win.”

For two weeks, Rangers head coach John Tortorella had been bemoaning his team’s slow starts. Even the players were joining in.

“It’s not easy for our ‘D’ to spend 15 out of the first 20 minutes in their own end,” said forward Carl Hagelin in the hours prior to Game 5. “When that happens, it’s going to be a long night. They’ll get tired.

“It’s time for us to have a good start.”

But it was not to be. Once again, the Rangers came out looking not-engaged and even confused. Less than three minutes in, a New Jersey shot from the point easily got through the Rangers’ much-vaunted Musk-ox defence, and Stephen Gionta was able to flick a backhand easily past Lundqvist.

Two more minutes and it was 2-0 after New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk skated slowly up the ice, fell crossing the blueline, still managed to sweep a pass over to Adam Henrique and Henrique’s long shot was tipped by the much-criticized Patrik Elias off a checker and in past Lundqvist.

Barely four minutes into the game and Tortorella felt he had to call time out. Perhaps he set off an alarm clock, who knows, but at least temporarily they joined the game, but only for the moment. Matters worsened for Lundqvist when Travis Zajac, playing on his new line with Zach Parise and Dainius Zubrus, scored on a long wrist shot that, normally, Lundqvist would swat away like a black fly.

Five shots, three goals.

Hagelin had said earlier in the day his team tends to sleep through the first 15 minutes and he proved almost precisely prophetic, the Rangers finally getting a puck past New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur when Brandon Prust managed to sweep a backhand into the net even as he was being hauled down.

Tortorella had said that he was concerned about New Jersey’s tendencies. “Right on through the playoffs,” he said after the morning skate, “not just our series, they have blitzed teams and gained momentum.”

The Rangers’ only option was to try and seize it back – and they did exactly this. In the opening seconds of period two, the Rangers moved back within a goal when a shot from an impossible angle by Artem Anisimov went in off captain Ryan Callahan.

The Rangers were by this point so dominant it seemed they would do as they have so often before. Shortly after, on a New York power play, Callahan somehow managed to hit two posts with one shot. Had it gone in, the outcome would likely have been quite different, as the Rangers had the Devils on the run.

This time, however, they would not be settled in the Rangers’ favour. They managed to tie the game one minute into the final period when Brodeur could not play a puck that lay just beyond his crease. Snake-bitten Marian Gaborik picked it up, headed for the back of the net and simply flipped the puck out just as a spinning, seemingly disoriented Brodeur forced it into his own net. It was not a night for great goaltending.

But that was all. Despite the fact that the Rangers had awakened and tied the game, the errors of the first period could not be overcome. A late goal by unheralded Ryan Carter gave advantage New Jersey, with an empty net goal by Parise finishing things off for the Devils.

“They beat us in most of the game,” said Elias. “But we get a win – and we’ll take it.”

“We had a rough start,” said Tortorella. “[But]I thought we played our best game of the series.”

Come Friday at the Devils’ Prudential Center, they will have to play their best game of the series – otherwise this eastern conference final is over.

“We have to,” said Lundqvist. “There’s no other way around it. We have to bring all the good things we did tonight and keep doing them in the next game. We played really well in the second and third period.”

Perhaps Tortorella might consider having his players show up an hour earlier at the rink.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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