For days, they had been crowning Henrik Lundqvist lord of the eastern conference playoffs.
And not without reason. The Swedish goaltender’s two shutouts had given his New York Rangers – a dull team offering dreary, but successful, hockey – a two-games-to-one lead in their best-of-seven series against the New Jersey Devils.
Notoriously slow to start any sort of game, the Rangers had depended on “King Henrik” to keep matters at a standstill until they themselves stopped standing still and went on to grind out another victory.
He said he was lucky. He said he could play even better.
“He’s never satisfied,” said Rangers coach John Tortorella. “Never satisfied – so he wants to be better.”
“Yeah,” the Rangers goaltender agreed, “Always play better.”
On this Monday night at the Prudential Center, however, he would have had to be much, much better, his team falling 4-1 to the Devils. The conference final is now even at two games apiece, with Game 5 scheduled for Wednesday night back across the Hudson River at Madison Square Garden.
Up until Monday night at the 8:10 mark of the opening period, it had appeared as if Lundqvist were channelling another very successful New York goalie, Billy Smith of the Cup-winning Islanders of a generation back. Smith believed that as the playoffs went on, he would “get on a role. There was more pressure, which helped my concentration, and the game seemed a little easier.”
Lundqvist had the concentration, but in no way did this particular game get easier. The Rangers once again looked dull and uninterested at the start, but a recalibrated New Jersey team – forward lines shuffled like cards – had new life.
The Rangers might have had the first lead, had only Marian Gaborik, a 41-goal scorer in the regular season, grasped the golden opportunity he was handed in the slot in front of New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Not surprisingly, the slumping star completely missed the net. As Jacques Lemaire once said of the inconsistent Gaborik when he went through a long dry spell with the Minnesota Wild: “The problem is himself.”
“We had the yips,” Tortorella said, referring to the missed shots and coughed up pucks, particularly by his usually solid defence.
On the Devils’ fifth good shot on Lundqvist – the Rangers having managed zero shots at Brodeur – a Bryce Salvador shot from the point skipped and somehow slipped through four players before sliding past Lundqvist.
The Rangers’ much-talked-about and much-criticized “Musk-ox defence” had failed them, the players in front this time screening Lundqvist so he could not see the shot rather than, as usually happens, one of them blocking the shot with whatever part of the body is handiest.
A few minutes later, with Rangers still not with a real shot on goal, the Devils struck again, Zach Parise sending a glorious cross-crease pass to Travis Zajac and Zajac easily scoring on a helpless Lundqvist.
New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer’s decision to shake up his lines seemed inspired. He put Parise, Zajec and Dainius Zubrus together – an old line combination that pre-dated DeBoer’s arrival as head coach – even though the three had accounted for zero goals over the previous five games. They seemed on fire once back together.
“It was tough to shake things up,” DeBoer had said earlier in the day. He felt his team had played well in Saturday’s 3-0 loss but had nothing to show for it. “We didn’t score – so that made it easier.”
The two early goals made it an easier night for the 40-year-old Brodeur, who has won three Stanley Cups but has traditionally had trouble with the Rangers. Four times in five previous series between the two teams the Rangers had beaten Brodeur.
The Devils went ahead 3-0 after the Rangers’ Derek Stepan took a high-sticking penalty early in the third period and, once again, a New Jersey shot from the point made it through the barricade.
Lundqvist initially stopped the blast from Ilya Kovalchuk, but he could not hold the puck and Parise rammed it past him. With Zubrus picking up an assist as well, it seemed the slumping three – Parise, Zubrus and Zajec – were now the go-to threesome.
“I thought he [Parise]had some real good chemistry with those guys,” said DeBoer at game’s end.
After that, matters turned very sour on the ice, with hulking Ranger Mike Rupp at one point trying to take Brodeur out with a blind swing at the goaltender’s head.
The blow didn’t hurt Brodeur nearly as much as, several minutes later, missing a long wrist shot from Ruslan Fedotenko.
It was too little too late; this critical game belonged to the Devils. Parise, with his second of the game, made it 4-1 with an empty net goal, with an assist from Brodeur.
“I think the hockey gods were on our side tonight,” said Parise.
Nearly 20 years ago, Wayne Gretzky had ridiculed the Devils as a “Mickey Mouse” operation.
But on May 21, 2012, Brodeur and the re-calibrated Trio were “Mighty Mouse” – come just in time to save the day.
At least until Wednesday.