Henrik Lundqvist's 36 saves and some timely scoring that broke a scoreless tie in the third period masked just how well the Devils played for much of the Rangers' 3-0 Game 3 victory. It is all the more reason why the Devils, down 2-1 in the series, should be concerned.
"We did a lot of good things out there," New Jersey forward Patrik Elias said. "We actually figured some things out. When you generate chances like we had early, maybe you start to shake your head a little bit."
That isn't good posture, especially against Lundqvist, the Hart Trophy finalist who has shut out the Devils twice in the series. New York also registered a 3-0 win in Game 1, again scoring all its goals in the third period.
"Hank set the tone for us when we needed him," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "He kept us in when we were on our heels."
With the Rangers blanking the Devils on five power-play chances and the Rangers' defense clogging the middle of the ice once New Jersey established possession in the offensive zone, the Devils tried a few more long, home-run passes to split the Rangers' defense and spring Ilya Kovalchuk, their top offensive threat. It took a while. As a testament to the Devils' early edge in play, they outshot the Rangers, 11-5 in the first period, even though New York blocked nine shots to New Jersey's one.
Neither team had an especially good chance until the first minute of the second period when Kovalchuk twice eluded the New York defense and went in alone on Lundqvist, who first sprawled to his left to stop the shot with his left arm once and later in the period, denied Kovalchuk with his left skate when the Devils' sniper tried virtually the same move.
Throughout the game, the Devils tried to thwart a Rangers' defense known for being scientifically obstructionist by attempting long, stretch passes that didn't allow New York time to set up. All day, New Jersey forwards were looking up ice, even before their teammates on defense secured control of the puck in their own zone, to try to beat the Rangers up the ice.
"They generated some chances that way," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "We adjusted later in the game, but we stayed with it."
And when the Devils did break through -- enough to draw five penalties on the Rangers -- Lundqvist was especially stingy.
"Your goaltender's your best penalty killer," Devils' coach Pete DeBoer said. "We're not the first team Lundqvist has done this to. Forget the tips; we had breakaways, two-on-ones. We've got to score a goal."
The Devils' best candidates for that were their top snipers; Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, who combined for 12 shots. Kovalchuk mustered six on the afternoon. He appeared to have Lundqvist beaten on his first breakaway.
"He's a good player," the goalie said. "With a player like that, you try to get him to make the first move. A couple of times I made the first move. It's not the way I like to make a save. I was lucky he didn't roof it."
Lundqvist's strong play enabled the Rangers to regain their defense-first posture, close the passing lanes and wait for opportunism to reward them. With New Jersey's Bryce Salvador off for hooking early in the third period, Brad Richards won a key faceoff back to Girardi, who found enough of a skating lane to move in a snap shot past Brodeur's right side three minutes into the period. Two minutes later, Chris Kreider, New York's rookie out of Boston College, cleverly disguised as a relaxed, gray-bearded veteran, increased the lead to two, tipping Ryan McDonagh's point shot past Brodeur. Callahan added an empty-netter, just his second goal in 13 games.
The teams traded iron rings in the third period -- Richards with a flick off the cross bar and Jersey defenseman Peter Harrold against the post to Lundqvist's left during a Devils' power play.
New York still faces some adjustments when the series returns to New Jersey on Monday night. The Devils outplayed the Rangers for much of the afternoon, enjoying an advantage in shots, 36-22, quality chances and ice.
"We spent too much time in our end zone," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "In the second half, we were better. We started gaining some territory. ... We found a way."
The Rangers also have to fear for the status of grinding forward Brandon Prust, who threw an unpenalized elbow against Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov early in the game.
"Headhunting," DeBoer said. "Plain and simple."
But the Devils now face the daunting fact that they did many things right against the Rangers and still couldn't win. They outskated their cross-river foes for much of the day, managed to get through the morass of defensive wall in front of them and created scoring chances and power plays.
"We need more of the same," Brodeur said, looking ahead. "We just need a better result. I'm not sure how you do that."