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Rangers, Devils squaring off in Game 4 today

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 4

Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils, 3 p.m. ET

If there was one moment that defined the Rangers' 2005-06 regular season, it might have occurred on Nov. 26, 2005, at Madison Square Garden.

On that day, an otherwise routine home game against Washington went to a 15-round overtime shootout before ending on Marek Malik's between-the-legs circus shot. The "defining" moment came in the 14th round of the shootout after Washington's Bryan Muir had scored to put the Rangers' backs to the wall. A miss by the next shooter would have ended the game.

Down to his 14th shooter, Rangers head coach Tom Renney called on defenseman Jason Strudwick to take a shot against Olaf Kolzig. Few people in the building truly expected Strudwick, who had only eight career goals in 377 NHL games, to keep the game going. But somehow he found a way. He skated in on Kolzig and buried the puck in the net.

In that moment -- which paved the way for Malik's circus shot -- Rangers fans had a right to believe the 2005-06 season was something special. A team with its back to the wall had refused to fold, and an unexpected hero stepped up at crunch time.

Facing playoff elimination tonight in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against New Jersey, the Rangers will need to draw on moments like that against a Devils team that has dominated the series so far. For the Blueshirts, this is truly a must-win game. And with so many hockey experts writing the series off for New Jersey, the Rangers have the luxury of being the underdog and rising to a challenge against great odds, which is what made their regular season so special.

There is only one way to come back from a 3-0 series deficit -- one game at a time. Only two NHL teams have ever managed to do it, and no team has in the past 31 years. Game 4 itself, however, is certainly winnable. Since 1987, almost half of the teams facing the prospect of being swept out of a series at home managed to turn the tables on their opponent and win Game 4.

A win in this series won't come easily. Through the first three games, the Devils have outscored the Rangers 13-2. Their power play is clicking at 28.6 percent, and they lead all NHL teams with a 93.8 percent performance on the penalty kill.

The Devils are also looking for their 15th consecutive victory today. That would tie a 51-year-old record for the longest combined regular-season and playoff winning streak. The Detroit Red Wings, who closed out the 1954-55 season with nine consecutive wins before taking their first six postseason games, set the standard on their way to winning a second straight Stanley Cup.

Winning 15 in a row would tie New Jersey with those Wings and the 1981-82 Islanders for the second longest winning streaks in NHL history. Only the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that included Jaromir Jagr, won more, when they went on a 17-game tear in March and April of 1993.

Jagr hopes to play again tonight despite the lingering shoulder injury that hampered him in Game 3 on Wednesday.

The Devils' success in this series has resulted from near flawless hockey and painstaking attention to the defensive details that have driven New Jersey's coaching philosophy for more than a decade. They are always ready to pounce on their opponents' mistakes, as they did just 68 seconds into Game 3 at The Garden, and they also have the patience to wait for their opportunities.

In those rare instances when the Devils have faltered in this series, goaltender Martin Brodeur has been there to bail them out. Brodeur leads the NHL playoffs in save percentage and goals-against average, and he is tied for the lead in wins.

Incredibly, no goaltender other than Brodeur has started a playoff game for the Devils since the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals against Boston. That was the series before the Rangers and Devils went seven games in the next round, which was punctuated by Mark Messier's Game 6 guarantee and Stephane Matteau's overtime winner in Game 7.

The 1994 Rangers-Devils series was the second of three previous postseason meetings between the teams, all of which were won by the Blueshirts.

"I don't think our approach will change that much because we're up 3-nothing," Brodeur told The Associated Press on Friday. "We just don't want to give them life. We are definitely scared of that hockey club. This is a big rivalry here and we're definitely excited about the situation that we're in but we haven't won anything yet."

While Brodeur and the Devils have been dominant through this series' first three games, the Rangers have had trouble getting any bounces or breaks to go their way. Petr Sykora has hit the post three times, and Sandis Ozolinsh inadvertently knocked a puck into his own net while trying to help out goalie Kevin Weekes in Game 2.

Now, there is no room for error for the Rangers. Down 3-0 and with their backs to the wall, every shift will be crucial against a team trained to capitalize on the slightest mistake. It's just the sort of do-or-die moment the Garden Faithful hasn't witnessed since a defensive defenseman was asked to keep a game alive by scoring against a former Vezina Trophy winner.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Devils - 101 points; 3rd seed. Rangers - 100 points; 6th seed.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Devils – Patrik Elias and John Madden, 3 goals; Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner, 5 assists; Elias, 8 points; Cam Janssen, 9 PIM. Rangers - Petr Prucha and Blair Betts, 1 goal; four with 1 assist; six with 1 point; Ryan Hollweg, 19 PIM.

PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Devils - Power play: 28.6 percent (6 for 21). Penalty killing: 93.8 percent (15 for 16). Rangers - Power play: 6.2 percent (1 for 16). Penalty killing: 71.4 percent (15 for 21).

GOALTENDERS: Devils - Brodeur (3-0, 1 SO, 0.67 GAA); Scott Clemmensen (no appearances). Rangers – Henrik Lundqvist (0-2, 4.51); Weekes (0-1-0, 4.00).
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