NEW YORK -- The New Jersey Devils' David Clarkson is now 3-for-3. When he tipped in a high point shot from Adam Henrique past New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the 27-year-old winger scored his third goal of the postseason -- incidentally, his third game-winner of this spring. Clarkson himself has no answer as to why his stick has a certain Midas touch this spring.
"I just tried to get a stick on it," he said. "It's just about being in the right place, I guess ... [After Game 1,] I needed to get into those areas in front where I was tonight. And that was what I tried to do going into the game."
From that area, right outside of Lundqvist's crease, Clarkson found the perfect place. The goal, at 2:31 in the third period, was the eventual reward New Jersey received for its aggressive forecheck Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, where the Devils defeated the Rangers, 3-2, and evened the Eastern Conference finals at 1-1.
For the better part of a month now, through a seven-game series win over Florida and a dominating series victory over Philadelphia, New Jersey has found its identity with this style. Maintaining time in the offensive zone and wearing opponents down with energetic puck possession style, the Devils simply outworked the Rangers along the boards and down low, winning one-on-one battles.
"In the first period, they were winning more battles than us," New York defenseman Marc Staal said. "It enabled them to get more pressure on us."
The pressure, Devils captain Zach Parise says, is the key. "It's not easy for a defenseman to get it out of the zone when there are a bunch of forwards on him," he said. "We want to be aggressive."
Parise said, though, that all forechecks may not be equal. What works against one team may not work against another, so while New Jersey had success aggressively pursuing the Flyers in the neutral zone and more in open ice, where Philadelphia's forwards excel, their forecheck against the Rangers may have to be different. Putting a lot of pressure along the boards and taking away the walls for New York was the key in shutting them down.
The offense will come from there, they figure. And eventually it did.
New Jersey winger Ilya Kovalchuk opened scoring on the power play 13:39 into the game, firing a laser shot into the top corner over the glove hand of Lundqvist. The Rangers perhaps overcommitted, sending four hard to one side, leaving Kovalchuk unattended, and so when the puck came across, Devils forward Patrik Elias set a pick, keeping Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi from getting across. It left Kovalchuk wide open on the weak side without any Rangers bodies in front of him, a rarity given New York's penchant for throwing their bodies in front of shots. And with a quick wrist shot, the New Jersey superstar picked the perfect corner.
"We know they're going to lay down and you want to fake them and go around," Kovalchuk said.
Earlier in the period, again on the power play, Kovalchuk had the puck at the left circle and a look on Lundqvist, only it was obscured by the body of Rangers winger Brandon Prust, who looked like he was doing up-down drills in anticipation of a shot. New York's shot-blocking, a pivotal part of the Rangers' win in Game 1, continued to be a thorn in New Jersey's side through half of the game. Through two periods, the Devils had thrown 38 shots toward New York's net. Ten were blocked before reaching Lundqvist. By contrast, the Rangers threw just 24. Seventeen reached Brodeur, four missed the net and three were blocked in front.
"I feel like everyone is obsessed with this shot-blocking because that's what they're doing," Parise said after Game 1. "A lot of teams block shots. We've just got to get it around."
With less than two minutes left in the second, and the Rangers hugging a 2-1 lead off power-play goals from defenseman Marc Staal and rookie forward Chris Kreider, the Devils seemed to find their way. With the Rangers pinned in their own zone, New York winger Marian Gaborik failed to clear the puck out against Bryce Salvador at the blue line, one of the many battles the Blueshirts lost along the boards. The puck found an open Steve Bernier, who took a shot from the top of the right circle, and the rebound bounced back out to Salvador whose subsequent shot was deftly deflected in the slot by forward Ryan Carter, passed Lundqvist.
"We need to get traffic in front of him," Salvador said. "If he's going to see it, he's going to save it. That's why he's a Vezina candidate. So we were able to get traffic in front of him and some of the tips went in ... In the playoffs, you're not going to see too many tic-tac-toe plays. Most of the goals you're seeing are rebounds, crash the net, going off a leg, bounces. You just have to keep sticking to it and not get frustrated."
Clarkson's score early in the third, another deflection, was a reward for the hardworking forward and this aggressive New Jersey team. They outbattled the Rangers, especially along the boards, and Lundqvist couldn't bail them out.