NEW YORK -- Not only did Zach Parise think this was the worst performance by the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals, he also thought it was their worst performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Still, it was still good enough to push the Devils within one victory of the Cup Final.
The Devils squandered a three-goal in Game 5 in disheartening fashion, but Ryan Carter scored with 4:24 remaining in regulation to help give New Jersey a 5-3 victory Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Game 6 is set for Friday night at Prudential Center in Newark (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), as the Devils can return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 2003.
"It wasn't the prettiest. I think it was probably the longest stretch, maybe all playoffs, that we haven't been sharp," said Parise, who scored his seventh goal of the playoffs into an empty net with 31.2 seconds remaining. "We didn't forecheck properly. I think they played well. I think they had a lot to do with that too. It wasn't our best game, but we snuck out of here with a win. That's all that matters."
The Devils blitzed the Rangers for three goals in the first half of the opening period and looked as though they would cruise to victory.
Stephen Gionta, who assisted on Carter's winning goal, put the Devils ahead 1-0 at 2:43 of the first period. Defenseman Mark Fayne fired a long shot with Gionta in front of the net screening Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made just 12 saves on 16 shots. Lundqvist made the initial save, but Gionta banged home the rebound to silence the raucous crowd.
Ninety seconds later, the Devils were up 2-0 on a goal from Patrik Elias, his first in six games and second in 14 games. Ilya Kovalchuk made a dandy of a play from his posterior to get the puck across to Adam Henrique, whose shot from the blue line hit Elias, then clicked off the skate of Rangers forward Artem Anisimov and slithered over the goal line.
Rangers coach John Tortorella burned his timeout after Elias' fourth goal of the postseason, but it didn't have the desired effect.
Travis Zajac scored his seventh goal of the playoffs at 9:49, beating Lundqvist to the far side with a shot from the right circle. The Rangers spent the two days between Games 4 and 5 talking about the need to have a better first 10 minutes, but instead found themselves in their deepest hole of the playoffs.
"They were opportunistic -- a few seeing-eye pucks," Rangers center Brian Boyle said. "Sometimes that happens, but we stuck with it, continued to battle and played a pretty good hockey game."
The comeback began with 4:19 left in the first period, when Rangers forward Brandon Prust slipped past the Devils defense for a semi-breakaway. Goaltender Martin Brodeur attacked Prust and went into his two-pad stack, but Prust slipped a backhander under Brodeur's arm to make it 3-1.
Just 32 seconds into the second period, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan cut the lead to 3-2. Anisimov whipped the puck out of the corner and hit a cutting Callahan in the leg with the puck. The ricochet found the back of the net to make it a one-goal game. The goal was reviewed and allowed to stand, as officials deemed there was no distinct kicking motion.
The rally was completed 17 seconds into the third period when Marian Gaborik capitalized on a gaffe by Brodeur, who came out of the net to play the puck but had it trickle behind the goal line and outside the trapezoid. Brodeur scrambled to get back to his net, but Gaborik was able to bank a shot off the goaltender and into the net to make it 3-3.
Chants of "Mar-ty" filled the building and were so loud, Brodeur made special mention of them after the game.
"That was great," Brodeur said. "That's as loud as they've gotten. If I come back in Game 7, I hope they're going to do better."
The Devils had every reason to panic and get swept away in a tidal wave of Rangers goals, but Parise said they hit the reset button both after the second period and after Gaborik's goal.
"I think our approach, even going into the third, was you take a 1-0 lead going into the third period," Parise said. "Unfortunately, that didn't last very long. Then you tell yourself, 0-0 game. You can't do anything about who scored the first three, who scored the next three. We just kept moving forward. Our mentality was 0-0 game, let's try to get that first one."
The Devils steadied themselves, and once again it was the fourth line, with a cameo appearance from Kovalchuk, getting a huge goal.
Kovalchuk started the play by separating the puck in the corner from defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who was minus-3 in the game. Gionta quickly jumped on the loose puck and hit Carter at the left post for the tap-in.
Brodeur made three saves before Parise sealed the win, one that tested the character of the Devils and revealed they have just as much resiliency as their Hudson River rivals.
"I think giving up a three-goal lead and coming back and winning a game late shows a lot," Brodeur said. "I thought we stayed composed even though we had a few bad breaks. Even the second goal, I'm still debating if he kicked it in or not, but we just kept on going. We didn't play our best game, but we got a win."
The Rangers are 3-0 when facing elimination in these playoffs, and the Devils know they'll need to be better if they want to avoid a Game 7 back at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.
"It feels good to be in position going home and being one game away, that's about it," Elias said. "We stole this one. Marty's been solid and been great for us and I think that was one of their best games they played in this series and I think we need to be better next game. We cannot steal those games too many times, but we did tonight and we'll take it. We'll move on but we have to get better."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo