Losing your top scorer to injury just 53 seconds into a must-win game is rarely a recipe for success, and on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, that unfortunate development helped bring an end to the New York Rangers' unforgettable 2005-06 season.
The New Jersey Devils' special teams, as they had throughout the series, also played a role in the Blueshirts' final loss, as the Devils scored twice on the power play and once shorthanded for a 4-2 victory that swept the Rangers out of the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs.
It was a week that truly belonged to the Devils, who outscored the Blueshirts 17-4 over the four games. New Jersey's victory ran the team's winning streak to 15 games -- tying Detroit's 51-year-old NHL record for the longest combined streak of regular-season and playoff victories. Special teams were the story of the series, as 11 of 17 Devils goals came on the power play or shorthanded.
" I don't know if they were more prepared than we were individually on the ice, but it's not like we couldn't play with them," said Rangers center Steve Rucchin. "We have to give them their due. They have good players over there, and it seems that every time we gave them a chance they made good with it."
New Jersey moves on in its quest for the Stanley Cup and will face an as yet undetermined opponent in the conference semifinals. And while the Rangers' off-season begins earlier than hoped, Saturday's loss hardly overshadowed a season in which the team defied all the hockey "experts" simply by making the playoffs in the first place.
"We still can't take away from a positive year for this organization," noted Rucchin. "To come this far from where we were pegged at the beginning of the year says a lot about the guys in this room."
The Garden Faithful showed their deep appreciation for that achievement as time ran out on the season -- when they stood on their feet chanting "Let's Go Rangers" in the game's final seconds. The chant continued into the traditional game-ending handshakes between Rangers and Devils players and resumed when the Rangers stood at center ice for one final stick salute.
"We're very proud of our fans," said defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, one of three alternate captains in 2005-06. "Usually in New York you get booed, but our fans appreciated the hard work all year long. It was pretty amazing to hear them cheer at the end."
Right to the end, the Rangers fought to extend their season, but could not catch the needed break. They hit the crossbar and the post in the last 10 minutes -- Blair Betts found iron at 10:48, and Marcel Hossa clanged another one off the goalpost at 11:31. Then, on a late power play opportunity with only 1:27 remaining, the Rangers notched the final goal of the series when Fedor Tyutin's shot from just inside the blueline was deflected in by Rucchin to cut the Devils' lead in half.
"We had a great year; it's just a really tough end," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
. "We were playing really well until the Olympic break, and after that we were up and down. The last couple games before the playoffs we started to feel a little insecure about ourselves. Stepping into this series, facing one of the best teams in the league, was a really tough challenge for us. We played hard, but they played really smart and took advantage of our mistakes."
Game 4 might have been decided in its first minute, when MVP candidate Jaromir Jagr re-aggravated his shoulder after being hit in the right corner of the offensive zone by New Jersey's Brad Lukowich. The Devils defenseman made contact with Jagr's right shoulder, and Jagr lost his edge -- hitting the boards with the left shoulder he had hurt in the closing seconds of Game 1. He immediately left the ice, headed for the Rangers' dressing room in obvious pain and did not return.
"I dislocated my shoulder in Game 1," Jagr said. "I came back and tried in the third game, and didn't get hit. This game I got hit into the boards. I don't know exactly what happened, but it wasn't good
Without Jagr, the Rangers didn't have the weapon they needed for a comeback once New Jersey took the lead for good.
"We circled the wagon and had a pretty good game in New Jersey when Jags couldn't play," Rangers head coach Tom Renney said, recalling Game 2 of the series. "And I thought that tonight we did so as well. We certainly attempted to overcome the loss, as we should. We didn't win, so it didn't work. But we certainly attempted to."
Out in front 2-1 after two periods on the strength of two power play goals, the Devils' put their potent special teams to work one more time when Brian Gionta stole the puck just inside the Rangers' blue line and came in on a shorthanded 2-on-1. Rather than send the pass over to his right, Gionta uncorked a hard slap shot from the left circle that beat Lundqvist high for a 3-1 lead at 4:30 of the third.
Gionta's goal came with only 14 seconds remaining in an interference penalty to Jason Wiemer. Nine minutes later, Patrik Elias added his second goal of the game and series-leading fifth of the playoffs to put the game out of reach at 13:21 of the third.
The game turned in the middle period when the Devils went 2-for-3 on the power play to regained the lead after the Rangers had gone up 1-0 on Jed Ortmeyer's goal in the closing seconds of the first.
Scott Gomez and PElias scored the second-period goals for the Devils, taking advantage of a bench minor against the Rangers and a call against defenseman Michal Rozsival. Both goals came after the Rangers had missed an opportunity to stretch their lead on their lone power play of the second period.
The Rangers got that early second-period power play when Erik Rasmussen was called for boarding at 2:09 after he knocked Ryan Hollweg into the boards, but with nine seconds left before Rasmussen's return, the Rangers negated their own opportunity by taking a costly bench minor for having too many men on the ice.
In typical Devils fashion, New Jersey capitalized on the mistake just 12 seconds into their ensuing power play. The Devils made it a 1-1 game when Gomez came over the Rangers' blue line, moved toward the left boards and fired a shot that beat Lundqvist high to the stick side.
"Our too many men on the ice penalty didn't help us," said Renney. "With that goal you could really feel the wind. We battled, we kept it to the backend, we kept doing the right thing and tried to attack. But give credit to a good hockey club. They're well organized and they certainly believe in what they are all about and they have success with it."
The Devils took a 2-1 lead on another power play when Elias snuck into the right faceoff circle and redirected Gomez's shot from the right point past Lundqvist at 7:21. That goal came with Rozsival off for interference at 6:24.
Earlier, Rangers fans got the moment they had been waiting for when the Blueshirts took their first lead of the series late in the opening period.
Ortmeyer's first career playoff goal at 19:41 ended a 94-minute scoring drought against Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, who shut out the Blueshirts in Game 3.
With time running out in the period, Ortmeyer came down the left wing, eluded a defenseman and fired last-ditch shot toward the net as he drew parallel to the goal line. The puck hit Brodeur in the skates and dribbled behind him in the net to give the Rangers their first lead of the series.
The Blueshirts outshot the Devils 9-8 in the first period, as Rangers goaltender Lundqvist was sharp with eight saves. He stopped 10 more shots in the second period and had seven saves in the third.
Despite Jagr's early exit, the Rangers carried play for much of the first period, and the scoring drought first appeared to end at the 3:37 mark, when Hossa fired the puck into the net from just outside the crease to Brodeur's left. The goal, however, was waved off, because Hossa had been whistled for knocking down a defenseman before he touched the puck.
"It's sad for our fans and the guys in here," Jagr said of the Rangers' season-ending loss. " I thought we played well in the middle of the season and at certain parts of the season, we thought we had a very good chance. You have to play the same way. The worst hockey we played was before the playoffs and in the playoffs. I don't know why that is. It could have been injuries, there were a lot of guys out before the playoffs started. Maybe guys were tired. Maybe guys who hadn't played that many minutes before, suddenly had to play more minutes than before."
While the season ended abruptly, a trip to the playoffs in the first year of the team's new era offered valuable experience for the Rangers' rookies and younger players.
"It's very important," said Kasparaitis. "I think a team that goes to the playoffs, you know that every shift counts. Every second counts and you can't look back. We're learning and we've been learning all year. Unfortunately we fell short at the end of the season. I don't want to make excuses, but we have a lot of guys playing without a lot of rest and that takes its toll on you."