Thursday, May 24, 2012

Moment Of Truth

As Zach Parise sealed the Devils' 5-3 Game Five victory to put the Rangers on the brink, the Garden grew silent. As I sat in my Section 411 Row F 14 seat reflecting for another 15 minutes after the buzzer sounded while most filed out, the haunting reality set in. Much like New York's two wins in the Battle Of Hudson, New Jersey had stolen one to move within one win of the Stanley Cup Final where the Kings already await.

If it's true that the Devils had the better of the play during the first four games of the Eastern Conference Final, that wasn't the case last night. Brandon Dubinsky's return to the lineup along with Brandon Prust provided the Rangers with more depth to compete against a worthy opponent.  As Stephen Gionta took advantage of a rebound following a missed high stick right to Derek Stepan, you had that sinking feeling. Especially when Adam Henrique's shot evolved into the Magic Bullet Theory off Patrik Elias and Artem Anisimov past a late reacting Henrik Lundqvist. Or as John Tortorella described, "Puck luck." But he also told Stan Fischler, "That's hockey."

Sometimes, you make your own breaks. The Rangers certainly cashed in when they had to in taking Games One and Three. The power play was a big part of why they led before the Devils flipped the script the last two games. Game Four was forgettable. Yesterday was gutwrenching with the resilient club we've cheered for digging out of a 3-0 hole after Lundqvist allowed his worst goal of the playoffs to Travis Zajac from way out. A save he makes 99 out of 100 times. He wasn't sharp and this time, needed his teammates to pick him up. They tried by giving their best effort of the series. As fate had it, it wasn't enough.

A day later, the older generation of Ranger supporters referenced J.P. Parise in 1975. Ironically, Zach's Dad who broke Ranger hearts with a similar goal to the one unsung Devil hero Ryan Carter scored with 4:24 remaining. That game saw the Blueshirts rally from three down to tie the hated Islanders before falling in excruciating fashion, igniting one of hockey's most storied rivalries. The Devils have been around for four decades. Amazing to think that here we are in 2012 with our new biggest rival again pushing us to the ledge with a must win Game Six tomorrow in Newark. Only this time it's a different building with no players left aside from Martin Brodeur, who was a young pup in 1994.

Much like that year, it won't be easy. It never is. This is who the Rangers are. A team that drives its loyal fanbase nuts. Just when you think they're out, they pull you back in. How many Garden Faithful came away thinking the series was over? After controlling roughly 50 of 60 minutes, you won't find our hand raised. Nobody would dispute that the Devils and resident blogger Hasan know they got away with one. Elias said so as did other Devils. They know they'll have to be better to close the Rangers out. Figure Lundqvist to be at his best facing elimination. Another twist considering that it was Mike Richter who saved our bacon in Game Six before Mark Messier rescued us.

But that's where the comparisons to '94 end. This isn't 18 years ago. These Blueshirts are built much differently with an emphasis on goaltending and defense. There's no Messier or Brian Leetch to elevate the offense. No Adam Graves to finish around the net or Sergei Zubov to run an actual power play that intimidated opponents instead of the other way around. The 2011-12 New York Rangers are a T-E-A-M. Yes, they need Brad Richards to have his fingerprints all over tomorrow instead of the lack of finish, lazy backchecking and forcing Lundqvist to make his best save. Was that a hallucination with six and a half minutes left or did he deliberately shoot at his own teammate to get a whistle? Only at MSG.

Richards is the offensive leader of the Rangers. During the first two rounds when they needed him most, he stepped up. No goals for the Conference Final ain't getting it done. Even Marian Gaborik showed a pulse yesterday. Granted. His miraculous goal was due to Brodeur's ridiculous gaffe that had the building serenading him with trademark, "Maa---rtttty, Maa-----rrrtttyyy" chants. The one that really could've changed Game Five was in the first prior to Zajac's crusher when Ruslan Fedotenko set Gaborik up for a gimme. Somehow, he missed. I'm still not sure how. It definitely hurt. Though you still expect Lundqvist to make that stop on Zajac even if our D was despicable. Nobody has more pressure on him than King Henrik tomorrow. Not even the Devils, who are in a great spot.

It starts with Lundqvist, who must return to the form that has him up for the Hart and Vezina. He's had a brilliant season, carrying the Blueshirts on his back. Without him, they're not here. It's also the first time he's ever made it past the second round. But at 30, that's not the goal. This is supposed to be his time. So, he needs to be at his absolute best when the puck drops at The Prudential Center Friday. At least half the Devils' goals the past two games were ones he should've had. That's the difference between leading and trailing. Three goals on their first five shots and four on a dozen is un-Lundqvist like.

The Devils still deserve credit for responding once the Rangers tied it. Even if our three goals were unpredictable starting with Brandon Prust's breakaway that pumped life into the building. It's funny but after the first, I called up Dad and told him I felt they would come back. They weren't playing that badly. When Artem Anisimov threw the puck for a driving Ryan Callahan in front during the first minute of the second, it was confirmed even if a lengthy video review determined that he didn't kick the puck in. Skating that fast, it would've been nearly impossible to pull off without a bit of luck. That one shift is what's been lacking most of the series. It was on display throughout during a gritty comeback. It's like someone set the alarm off and reminded them that's how they should've been playing all along.

Tortorella took his timeout after Elias' marker. The Rangers were much better. They dictated the play by dumping and recovering pucks and finishing checks. They won faceoffs and board battles. The formula paid off when Brodeur had one of his worst moments, fumbling a puck near the ridiculous trapezoid and then Gaborik shooting it off the stumbling goalie and watching it trickle in. When it happened, I think I was the only one who saw the puck cross the line because there was hardly any reaction until the refs pointed. At 17 seconds of the third, MSG was bedlum. In that moment, you felt like something good would happen. One thing about the Devils. They are mentally tough enough to fight back. We saw it in the first round against Florida and again yesterday.

It's true that the Rangers took their foot off the accelerator. Against an aggressive foe like New Jersey, you can't do it. The Devils started controlling the neutral zone and getting the puck deep. You could almost see it coming. I quietly did next to my brother when Marek Zidlicky's smart dump was recovered by a hustling Gionta, who made a tremendous pass for Carter for the game-winner. Sometimes, it's the little things that decide these games. One glaring mistake and it's in your net. The Devils' fourth line was their best and the only one I feared because they were the one unit creating problems. We saw it on Gionta's goal which set the tone and unfortunately, when the same midget with the big heart outhustled our guys. Carter may have been the game's First Star as voted by the media. But Gionta was in our book. He made the play. Otherwise, it probably goes to overtime and who knows what we're talking about today.

Tortorella was quick to point out that his club didn't defend it. Carl Hagelin was too late to deny Carter and Richards was culpable. They were far from alone. Mike Del Zotto had another dreadful game, finishing minus-three. The one time the offense showed up was also the instant the defense leaked enough to let the Devils prevail. It can either be one we talk about for a while or one that's already forgotten like Tort's players will try to do at The Rock. In the postseason, you must have a short memory to survive four grueling rounds and win 16 games for the most prestigious trophy in sports. That's been the Rangers' motto all season.

The moment of truth has arrived.

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