It all goes back to the starts.
For the fourth consecutive game in this Eastern Conference Final series, the New York Rangers shot themselves in the foot in the first period before even giving themselves a chance to win. In fact, this was the worst opening ten minutes of any game in the playoffs for New York, as they handed the New Jersey Devils a 3-0 lead in just the first 9:49 of regulation time. Aside from that, this was the Rangers' best effort of the series, coming back from the three-goal deficit, but only to fall short in the end to put their backs flat up against the wall going into Game 6 on Friday night.
The Rangers' early woes began at 2:43 of the first period tonight, when Stephen Gionta snuck loose in front of the net to finish off a play that started with Mark Fayne getting a puck on goal from the point, and ended with Gionta backhanding the rebound past Henrik Lundqvist. This was a pretty clear defensive brain-fart by the Rangers to allow Gionta to plant himself behind the defense and right alongside Lundqvist alone at the net. However, just prior to the goal being scored, Gionta got away with what should've been a high-sticking minor when he inadvertently slapped Derek Stepan across the face with his blade. The incident went unnoticed by the officials, so no call was made and the goal would count.
Less than two minutes after, again, the Rangers ran into problems while defending at the goalmouth. This time it was Artem Anisimov struggling to contain Patrik Elias, who would eventually get a stick on Adam Henrique's shot to deflect it behind Lundqvist to grab a 2-0 lead. The goal came off an odd-man rush that resulted from Marc Staal losing an edge in the offensive zone, preventing him from getting back to his position and leaving Anisimov to play defense. This was just a case of bad luck for the Blueshirts, but even so, they now were in a 0-2 hole.
John Tortorella used up his only timeout at this very moment, allowing his players to regroup and collect their emotions before the puck dropped after the second goal against. As per usual, the Rangers were a resurged hockey club after the break, and this is when they began to establish a threatening forecheck for the first time since the series opener. The chances were coming at a rapid pace, including a golden opportunity missed by Marian Gaborik when he failed to bury a perfect feed from Ruslan Fedotenko at the top of the crease.
This would bite the Rangers in the rear, because shortly after the Devils would strike again to take a 3-0 lead. At 9:49, Zach Parise, while on the rush, fed Travis Zajac, who fired a wrist shot over the blocker of Lundqvist - one Hank certainly needs to stop and would certainly love to have back. So, with the score looking insurmountable at this point, the Rangers appeared to be down and out early.
It was our mistake to assume so, though, as this team was not prepared to call it quits just yet. Brandon Prust took advantage of a fortuitous bounce before the end of the first, taking the puck hard to the net on a breakaway and beating Marty Brodeur while crashing to the ice. Down 3-1 going into the second, the Rangers at least now had life.
Hope really began to build just 32 seconds into the second stanza, when Artem Anisimov's centering feed deflected off the skate of Ryan Callahan and into the net to make this a one-goal game. The Rangers continued to dominate puck possession from that point on, but it was not until early in the third period when they would find the tying tally. That goal eventually came at :17 of the final frame, as Derek Stepan helped aid in a Gaborik shot that was lodged under the skate of Brodeur on the goal line. Stepan took advantage of a delayed whistle and continued to work at the puck until it finally made its way over the line to bring this wild and wacky night to an even score.
As incredible as it was to make up for a three-goal deficit, what the Rangers had accomplished was not impressive, at least not at that point anyway. They still had a hockey game to win, and unfortunately this is where they fell short. With less than five minutes remaining in the third, an innocent play quickly formed into a game-changer when Gionta somehow fed Ryan Carter through two Ranger defensemen for an easy tap-in goal.
That would ultimately be the game-winner as Zach Parise would add an empty-net goal at 19:28 to put a final wrap on this one.
Well, talk about epic heartbreak.
The Rangers have lost many emotional games in the postseason this year, but tonight's by far tops the list in terms of disappointment. To score three unanswered goals after allowing just that in only the first period, only to come up short in the end and basically put your season in jeopardy is quite deflating. The effort was there for fifty out of the total sixty minutes of this game, but it was those lacking ten that cost the team. This will be a tough loss to overcome even though the locker room with attempt to disregard such portrayals of the situation, but they'll need to overcome it in order to salvage their season.
On the bright side, the team had to have drawn some confidence knowing they can bring their game to the next level as they did tonight. Ryan Callahan was an absolute beast with a goal and six hits, as was Ruslan Fedotenko, who seemed to be in the middle of everything. Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal were both tremendous on their respective defensive pairings, and they helped offensively as well in this game. And speaking of the offense, they finally possessed the puck and forechecked tonight.
This team is not down and out just yet. An effort like tonight's stretched over sixty minutes on Friday in New Jersey will have this series coming back to New York for a seventh game without a doubt. The Rangers have been in this position before, so they know damn well what needs to be done.
Now let's hope they do it.