Here in The Land of Missed Opportunities, the New Jersey Devils fell 3-0 to the New York Rangers in a game they should have won several times over.
But when your power play has no power, when the other team’s goaltender is like Hadrian’s Wall, and when you miss on at least three magnificent chances in the second period alone, you have to expect that fortune will eventually slap you hard, and hurt.
This was billed as a single match, Game 3 in the best-of-seven eastern conference final, with the Devils and the Rangers tied at one game apiece.
But it was really three games in one – one period of something it would be an insult to call hockey, one period in which the game threatened at times to break out, and one period – the third – in which one side, the Rangers, finally took control and decided matters rather decisively.
Had Henrik Lundqvist not been in nets for the Rangers, however, the game might well have been decided in the second period – or at least during the five power plays that the Devils simply squandered in futile attempts to find a way to beat the New York goaltender.
“Their goalie was the difference,” said New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer.
Especially he was the difference in the second period. “We strung together six or seven shifts. We didn’t score on it. That’s the story of the game.”
New Jersey’s star player, Ilya Kovalchuk, had two fabulous opportunities early in the game to score – once sent in on a clear breakaway only to have a sprawling Lundqvist make a snow-angel save with his left arm – but neither he nor any of his teammates could solve the brilliant Swedish netminder.
The Rangers’ victory now gives the shot-blocking artistes a two-games-to-one lead in the series, with Game 4 scheduled here for Monday night.
“We’re never going to change our game,” swore New York forward Brandon Prust.
Prust may have his game changed for him, however, as he put a nasty elbow to the back of New Jersey’s Anton Volchenkov, leaving the defenceman stunned and shaken on the ice.
“Head hunting, plain and simple,” DeBoer called it. There was no immediate indication as to whether the NHL planned to look into the nasty hit.
For all Friday’s talk of a “battle” and a “war” and a “better game,” this third match began with a sense that rigamortis had set in. The opening period lacked intensity, lacked opportunity – apart from a Zach Parise chance in the dying seconds when New Jersey had a rare two-on-one break – and was sadly lacking in any imaginable excitement.
With New Jersey pressing in the second, Rangers coach John Tortorella called a time out that seemed, finally, to awaken his team.
“We were too slow. We were lethargic,” he explained after. “We were going to get hurt, get scored on. We were just too lackadaisical.”
“It was a good time out,” Lundqvist thought. He had felt sharp from the start, yet was acutely aware that the Devils had increasingly been carrying the play.
“As a goalie, you know sooner or later it’s going to turn,” Lundqvist said of the way the game was going at that point. “There’s no way that New Jersey is going to be able to play like that for 60 minutes.”
“We had to calm our game down,” said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
They did, and very quickly play began to shift to the Rangers’ advantage.
With their own power play – New Jersey’s Bryce Salvador off for hooking – Rangers’ centre Brad Richards won a faceoff in the New Jersey end, got the puck to defenceman Dan Girardi and Girardi fired a hard shot that beat New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur, who up until then had been flawless.
It was no surprise that a New York defenceman scored. What was truly surprising was that it was on a clear shot on Brodeur.
The goal marked Girardi’s third of the playoffs, a remarkable sum for a defenceman far better known for his shot blocking and corner work. He would never have had the opportunity, however, had Richards not won a faceoff when one was most needed.
“He makes big plays at key times,” Tortorella said of the talented centre from Murray Harbour, P.E.I. Tortorella and Richards previously won a Stanley Cup together with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
Less than two minutes later, the Rangers went ahead 2-0 when college phenomenon Chris Kreider – he won’t be an NHL rookie until next season – scored on a nifty tip from in front of Brodeur.
“I don’t know the kid at all,” said a suddenly loquacious Tortorella. “I’ve probably spoken to him two or three times since he got here.
“But he has a knack.”
Kreider certainly does: it was the fifth goal of the playoffs for a youngster who had never played an NHL game prior to this spring.
The Devils tried their best to make a game of it from then on out, but the combination of collapsing New York forwards, blocking New York defencemen and, let’s be fair, the brilliance of Lundqvist rendered any thoughts of a comeback moot.
The best chance New Jersey had came with some four minutes left when defenceman Peter Harrold hit the post from just inside the blueline on yet another failed New Jersey power play.
It was as close as the Devils would come all game.
The Rangers closed out the scoring when Callahan was allowed to chase down a puck that missed the empty Devils net and was able to clip his fourth goal of the playoffs in.
“We played a real good hockey game,” said DeBoer of his disappointed team.
“We’ve got to find a way to score a goal.”