In Game 1, New York Rangers defenceman Dan Girardi had emerged as a fitting hero, potting the winning goal in a contest defined by all the blocked shots.
In Game 2, the New Jersey Devils found their man in David Clarkson.
His methodology was a little different – redirecting a chest high point shot down and in – but the result was the same.
An early third period goal, a lead for his team and, after 17 more hairy minutes, a 3-2 win at Madison Square Garden to tie the Eastern Conference final.
Wild-eyed and bearded, Clarkson had let out a whoop on the ice after he’d found the back of the net, knowing he’d potentially scored the big one.
“I can’t explain the feeling when you get a goal like that,” Clarkson said. “It’s pretty good.”
Pretty good also explains the effort the Devils got out of all their forwards, who hemmed the Rangers in their zone much of the night with an aggressive forecheck not often seen this deep in the NHL postseason.
In addition to Clarkson’s winner, fourth-liner Ryan Carter also scored on a key deflection, tying the game late in the second as New Jersey’s pressure paid off in allowing them to come from behind.
Afterwards, almost every Ranger offered a similar refrain: They were better along the boards and that was in large part why they won.
“That’s where they set the tone for the whole game,” netminder Henrik Lundqvist said.
“That’s how you create momentum, and they did that,” teammate Carl Hagelin echoed.
“In the corners and along the wall, they were pinching and cycling us pretty good,” added defenceman Marc Staal, who scored the Rangers first goal of the night on an odd one that bounced off the back boards, off Martin Brodeur and in. “They were winning more battles than us in the corners and [that] enabled them to get more pressure on us.”
The pace of this game was far different than Game 1, which had a tentative start and lulls throughout until the Rangers finally broke free with three unanswered goals in the third.
New Jersey had clearly come to play right from the start on Wednesday, with captain Zach Parise and new linemate Ilya Kovalchuk leading the charge and that effort paying early dividends.
Kovalchuk opened the game’s scoring on the power play with a laser beam to the top corner, coming in from the point uncovered and taking advantage of a rare lapse by the Rangers diligent checkers.
Then came Staal’s goal to open the second, followed by Rangers rookie Chris Kreider again making his presence felt with his fourth of the playoffs – a league record for a player who has yet to play a regular season game – to make it 2-1 midway through the game after three power play markers in a row.
All of those early power plays – including two against the Devils for careless plays in the offensive zone – gave the penalty box an unexpected workout to the point that the door to the visitors box at one point refused to open.
That brought a lengthy delay as a horde of workers attempted to push, kick and pry it open so the awaiting player – Devils centre Travis Zajac – could sit out his two minutes or less.
(Zajac began the minor in the Rangers box before the issue was fixed, but there was apparently a contingency plan where players from both teams would share the one box – with an official between them – if it came to that.)
Through the delays and the two goals against, the Devils didn’t lose faith that eventually their game plan would pay off. When Bryce Salvador wired a point shot through traffic late in the second period, it was Carter who deftly made contact and directed it over Lundqvist.
Clarkson finished things off, and from there the Devils continued to press, frustrating the Rangers just as the Rangers had frustrated them with their suffocating shot blocks two nights earlier.
“Our team has a resiliency to it,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “And we usually respond in the right way.”
Part of that response also came from Brodeur, who made several highlight reel saves on the night and made a statement that he could be a potential difference maker, even at age 40, in the series.
The rest was credit to that relentless forecheck, something that sets this team apart in a postseason where cautious hockey has been the norm.
“Pete wants us to be aggressive,” Parise said. “That’s how we get scoring chances and that works for us.”
Leading the way on that front on Wednesday was Clarkson, whose third goal of these playoffs also just happened to be his third game winner, earning him a new nickname from the local media.
“Mr. Clutch?” Clarkson said. “I don’t know about that. I’m going to stay [playing]up and down and finish my checks. They’ll bounce off me and go in it seems like.”
His goaltender, however, gave him more credit than that.
“Clarky is a guy that is hard to play against when he’s strong on the puck,” Brodeur said. “On the boards and when he gets himself positioned well in front of the net and be able to make some plays around the net.
“I thought he was a pretty dominant player in the offensive zone. And we need him to be like that a little more. Every time he scores, it’s a game winner.”