NEW YORK -- Henrik Lundqvist needed three seconds to leave his mark on Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He left the rest of the series-opening victory to his stable of capable defensemen.
The Hart and Vezina Trophy finalist needed to make just 21 saves for his second shutout of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but made three consecutive stops on Devils captain Zach Parise with the game still scoreless in the second period to allow the New York Rangers a chance to take over in the third period and emerge with a 3-0 victory.
The Rangers were on a power play with 5:55 remaining in the second period when Parise busted through to release three dangerous shots in three seconds, all of which were turned aside by a scrambling, yet steady Lundqvist.
After escaping the second period 0-0, defenseman Dan Girardi scored the winner 53 seconds into the third period to put the Rangers ahead for good, but it was Lundqvist's heroics with his team under siege in the second period that set the stage for the win.
"Yeah, as a goalie you always have to step up when your team needs you, not when you feel good and have your moments," Lundqvist said. "A lot of times, it's when the team's struggling that you have to step up. It's fun, too, to be there and make a difference when your team is going through a tough stretch."
The Rangers were playing their 15th game of the postseason after winning in seven games in each of the first two rounds, while the Devils were coming off a five-day break after eliminating the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. Despite the disparity, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh appeared to have to the freshest legs of anyone on the ice in the first period.
About seven minutes into the game, Parise escaped through the neutral zone for a clear-cut breakaway opportunity. McDonagh, who played 24:27 and blocked three shots, unveiled his speed to track down Parise and knock the puck away before a shot could be released.
As if that wasn't impressive enough, McDonagh repeated the feat about four minutes when Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk found himself with a 1-on-1 chance against Lundqvist. McDonagh couldn't deny the shot altogether this time, but he steered Kovalchuk into a backhand attempt that was far less dangerous than it could've been.
"You don't want to cut in and let him get to that forehand," McDonagh said. "I see Hankie coming out pretty far there and I'm just trying to make sure he stays to the outside. I didn't think I could get my stick right onto the puck, so I just tried to make sure he couldn't get to his forehand."
"He's such a good skater, and looked like he was pretty far behind but he would catch up pretty fast and made a great play," Lundqvist said. "And because he's such a great skater, he can be aggressive in his game. And it means a lot to the forwards, he can join the rush, but he also he's really quick to recover if something happens."
One of the few gaffes made by a Rangers blueliner happened in the second period when Girardi tried to make an outlet pass that deflected off Devils rookie Adam Henrique and resulted in a chaotic scene around Lundqvist's net. It didn't take long for Girardi to redeem himself with his second goal of the playoffs early in the third period.
Rangers rookie Chris Kreider, who added an insurance goal later in the period, pushed back the Devils defense with his speed as he crossed the blue line. Girardi joined the play from the bench and unleashed one-time blast from the blue line that eluded Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur to make it 1-0. Brodeur couldn’t track the puck with Rangers forward Derek Stepan parked at the top of his crease.
The goal changed the tenor of the game and gave the Rangers a lift over the final 20 minutes after they were outplayed during the first 40 minutes.
"It wasn't our best two periods," Girardi said. "We had to just go hard, play our style of game and work hard on the forecheck and it worked out for us. I saw (Kreider) coming up the wall there and I was delaying to see what he was going to do. I saw no one got to the point and I kind of stepped into it and got it through."
Less than two minutes later, Lundqvist made a difficult save off a one-time try by Kovalchuk from the left side. Lundqvist pushed across and not only made the save, but left no rebound for an opportunistic Devil to jam home.
Kreider would put the game away with eight minutes left in the period, finishing a pretty passing sequence involving Artem Anisimov, who salted the win away late with an empty-net goal, and Girardi in the neutral zone. Kreider scored his third goal of the playoffs by snapping a quick shot past the glove side of Brodeur to make it 2-0.
Lundqvist was called upon to make four saves in the third period, but he stayed focused and once again gave his teammates time to score a big goal.
"They had some good chances where Hank had to make some big saves -- again," said defenseman Marc Staal, who had five of the Rangers' 26 blocked shots in 24:55 of ice time. "At times in the third he wasn't busy, but he's always so mentally sharp and he stays with it and makes those key stops."
The Rangers also forced another 15 shots to miss the net.
"It wasn't anything we weren't prepared for, we knew it was coming," Parise said of the Rangers' shot-blocking skills. "We just have to do a better job of getting the point shots through and get it past the first guy."
That's just part one of the plan. Part two is getting those pucks past Lundqvist, who leads all playoff goaltenders with a 1.57 goals-against average.
"We want to play well in front of him," Rangers forward Brian Boyle said. "He bails us out. It's huge. You think about the end of the game when you don't want to have to put him in situations like that. We know what we have in him, and he's been huge for us all year long."
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