By Jay Greenberg in Newark, N.J.
Save for one series between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, teams that are understandably long gone, the Eastern Conference playoffs have been almost entirely about eliminating space and time. And the Devils had eliminated at least the space problem Saturday afternoon.
"We throw as many pucks as we did, the goalie can have an off night eventually and we will score goals," vowed goalie Marty Brodeur, but time has begun to run out for New Jersey regardless.
The Devils fired 36, mostly real, shots Henrik Lundqvist - not deflections this time, nor prayers sent deliberately to the backboards for lack of a clear path to the goal. They still lost 3-0, nevertheless, trail the series 2-1 and face a mammoth test of not letting the brilliant Ranger goalie get into their heads.
This spring, Brodeur has had that one off night, when he got pulled in Game 3 against Florida. Lundqvist has not suffered one in 17 Ranger post-season games, all of them as close as was Saturday's. He gave a goal away behind the goal against Washington, let one catchable Alex Ovechkin blast go right through his glove but otherwise everything he has given up has gone off somebody, had eyes through screens, was roofed from 15 feet out, or took a bounce in front resulting in an easy tap-in.
On Saturday, the Devils outplayed the Rangers throughout and in the second period by a lot, forcing the normally disciplined top seed into six minor penalties. New Jersey had good puck movement on a few of them, too, and still got zilch.
So it had to be by rote, then, that somebody posed another question to Coach Pete DeBoer about creating more tips and screens to get some pucks by Lundqvist.
"Forget the tips," said the Devils coach. "We had breakaways and two-on-ones. "Adjustment? We gave up 20 shots and maybe five scoring chances the whole night.
"Again, the tendency when you lose a game like this is to microscope everything to death. We played a real good hockey game. We lost. It happens.
"We gotta find a way to score a goal."
Good luck to the Devils, shutout twice in three games, on that one.
Indeed, under that microscope were slides of Bryce Salvador hooking Marian Gaborik along the backboards, Patrik Elias losing a draw to Mike Richards and Dainus Zubrus failing to cover the point on the winning power-play goal.
"It was Richards and he's lefty," said Zubrus. "I thought if he wins it, he's probably going to go the boards so I thought I could get a jump.
"It went right to the middle to Girardi and he's righty so it makes it even a longer angle to get to him. I was way out of position on that."
Girardi had ample time to put a good, but not unstoppable, shot along the ice past an unscreened Brodeur's stick side for what turned out to the winner. But in the big picture, when the ice suddenly in the second period became as big as the great outdoors, Lundqvist was sprawling along the ice to get his arm out on a Kovalchuk breakaway, making Zubrus hit the goalie on a three-on-two, and, with the help of a fast-closing Marc Staal, forcing Kovalchuk to hit the side of the net on a semi-breakaway.
Brodeur inevitably cracked
Thus it was Brodeur, who snatched a glorious Ryan Callahan chance at the side of the net in the second period, who inevitably cracked, then was beaten again on a Chris Kreider redirect less than two minutes after Girardi broke through. It gave Lundqvist, lucky once when Peter Harrold hit the post late in the third period with Brad Richards in the penalty box, had more cushion than needed on the kind of a day where from the start, it was obvious the Ranger goalie wasn't going to be beaten.
The Rangers, scolded during a timeout by John Tortorella early in the second period, fortunate to not have to kill a seventh penalty when referees Kevin Pollock and Brad Watson missed a blatant Brandon Prust elbow to Anton Volchenkov's head that should draw a league hearing - "Headhunting," said DeBoer - knew this day would not be lost because The King would keep finding the puck.
"I've always said that about [Lundqvist], that's a bit of who we are," said Tortorella. "Henrik displays that, how he does compete."
A case in point was Kovalchuk having Lundqvist dead on that breakaway, but the goalie refusing to give up.
"You try to make him make the first move," Lundqvist said "But there were a couple times, too, that I made the first move and got lucky.
"I was on the ice on that one and stopped it with my arm. Not the way you want to make that save. I was lucky he didn't lift it."
That's pretty much what Kovalchuk, who wound up with six shots, including one Lundqvist snatched brilliantly in the third period, confirmed.
"He made a good save but I didn't get it up," he said, but he and the Devils remained defiant. At least the ones who spoke did, Captain Zach Parise being conspicuous in his absence.
"We know he's going to make some big saves for them and he did," said Elias. "But we're fine.
"We're getting shots through, we had a couple of breakaways. We just have to stay with it. Just have to find a way to score the first goal."
That's what the Senators and Capitals said, too.
Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg.
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