The return of Jaromir Jagr and Martin Rucinsky for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals was not enough to prevent the Rangers from being shut out by the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
With their 3-0 road victory, the Devils, who have never beaten the Blueshirts in a postseason series, grabbed a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven matchup. Game 4 is set for Saturday at MSG.
The entire Rangers offense, including Jagr, who came back from a shoulder injury suffered in Game 1, and Rucinsky, who had not played since March 24 due to a broken finger, found itself stifled by a classic brand of New Jersey Devils hockey. The Devils grabbed an early lead – just 68 seconds into the game – then clamped down into their familiar defense-first posture that limited the Rangers' scoring opportunities to a minimum.
"Somehow we have to score goals," said Jagr, clearly hampered by the pain in his shoulder. "We aren't able to score goals. Any mistake we made, they scored. We gave them two odd man rushes, and they scored on both of them."
Meanwhile, the Devils did the other thing they do best: Capitalizing on any mistake made by their opponent. Even when a Rangers skater was slightly out of position, the Devils made the Blueshirts pay with their patient attention to detail.
New Jersey won its 14th consecutive game, dating back to March 28. Although their streak has spanned both regular-season and postseason, it is already one the longest winning streaks in NHL history. The Devils have not lost since March 26.
Despite a raucous Garden crowd and the pressure of playing on the road, the Devils came out at the top of their game Wednesday and set the tone early with the game's first goal just 68 seconds into the opening period.
Patrik Elias, who had six points in Game 1, was again the catalyst in Game 3 with an assist on the early tally and a goal of his own at the 9:20 mark.
"It's always important to score the first goal," said Devils head coach Lou Lamoriello. "There's no question here tonight with the excitement (in Madison Square Garden) that the first goal was important."
The Rangers outshot the Devils 25-20, but could not put the puck past goaltender Martin Brodeur, who notched his 21st career playoff shutout. Unlike Game 2, when he was forced to make several spectacular saves, Brodeur did not see many big scoring opportunities from the Blueshirts.
New Jersey's goals weren't spectacular either, but rather the result of patient, determined play.
On the first goal, Elias took a feed from defenseman Brian Rafalski, came down the right wing, crossed the blueline and backhanded a pass from the left circle to Jamie Langenbrunner in the slot. Langebrunner rifled his shot -- the Devils' first of the game -- past Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
at 1:08 to give the Devils a 1-0 lead for the third straight game.
"It is kind of frustrating that they got a goal that early," Lundqvist said. "This team (New Jersey) is very smart and when they get the lead it is tough to create good scoring chances. They played smart and kept to the outside the whole game, and Marty (Brodeur) played well."
The Devils' second goal was equally methodic, resulting from a 3-on-2. On the play, David Hale came through center ice and fed a pass to Jamie Langenbrunner on the left side of the Rangers' zone. Langebrunner took a long shot from the top of the left faceoff circle, which was stopped by Lundqvist. But the rebound squirted out to Patrik Elias in front, and the Devils winger made a slick move to deke Lundqvist for his third goal of the playoffs at 9:20 of the first period.
Elias' goal gave the Devils one of their key weapons -- a two-goal lead -- much earlier in the game than they were used to having it.
The Devils' pattern of cutting off any potential Rangers momentum continued into the second period, when it again didn't take them long to add another goal. This time it was rookie Zach Parise capitalizing on a smart play by Scott Gomez. Faking a shot from the point, Gomez instead dumped it down to Parise in the right faceoff circle. Parise quickly released the shot for his first NHL playoff tally at 2:48.
Following Parise's goal, the team's played 37:12 of scoreless hockey to close out the game.
"We are really trying," said Lundqvist. "When we are out there you can see that we are working hard. We have made some mistakes in the offensive zone and they are taking advantage of it. They are a smart team. ... It is going to be tough, but we have three days before the next game. We have to regroup here and come back strong on Saturday."
In keeping with their style style, the Devils seemed content to sit on their early 1-0 lead. New Jersey did not get its second shot on net until the 8:10 mark of the first period, when the Rangers had already taken four shots at Brodeur.
Unlike Game 1, penalties also weren't a big factor on Wednesday. There were only five total power plays, or less than a third of the amount in the series opener. The Rangers were 0-for-3 with the man-advantage, while the Devils were 0-for-2.
The Rangers got the game's first power-play opportunity at the 2:31 mark of the opening period, when Hale was called for tripping. Later in the period, the Rangers got another shot at the man-advantage when New Jersey's Paul Martin was called for hooking at 15:40. The Blueshirts nearly cashed in 37 seconds into that penalty when Petr Sykora shot the puck over the net from out outside the crease after having first hit the goalpost.
"I thought when we were down 1-0, we had an opportunity on the power play," said Jagr. "We had an empty net and missed it. That was probably the biggest chance we had in the game. We have to be able to score on those chances."
With 3:53 remaining in the second period, the Rangers got their final chance on the power play, when Erik Rasmussen was called for interference after pushing Ryan Hollweg to the ice behind the Devils' net. But once again, the New Jersey penalty kill stifled the Blueshirts, with Jay Pandolfo keeping Jagr close in check throughout the man-advantage.
"I thought he (Jagr) showed a lot of courage tonight," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "I thought he protected the puck as best he could and he made some plays that only he can make. He wasn't able to manufacture much offensively off the shot. He played to the best of his ability and it was important for our team to have him in the lineup, on our bench and in our dressing room."
The final score was a disappointing end to a night that had started with great enthusiasm. The surprise return of Jagr and Rucinsky was greeted by thundering cheers from the Garden Faithful, and the roar of the crowd continued right through much of the national anthem and did not subside until Langenbrunner gave the Devils their quick 1-0 lead.