NEWARK, N.J. -- Henrik Lundqvist had become the bogeyman, a haunt in the night, a figure far more forbidding than your average man behind a mask. He was not only in the New Jersey Devils' heads, he was in their closets and under their beds.
Lundqvist had to be loving it, too, this feeling of invincibility, this aura of doom. He had heard about his postseason record at the start of these playoffs, about the fact he'd never reached a conference final, and here he was driving the New York Rangers toward the Stanley Cup, and making a molehill out of the mountain that is Martin Brodeur along the way.
But the Devils finally got to him Monday night, finally made him look like a beatable foe. Once Lundqvist was proven mortal in Game 4, his team's human flaws were out there for all in the Prudential Center to see, as clear as Mike Rupp's cheap shot on Brodeur.
If only to honor all the acting and exaggerating John Tortorella had accused the Devils of doing, Brodeur responded as if he'd taken a scripted shot from some WWE villain, throwing himself onto the back of his cage. The 6-foot-5, 243-pound Rupp had just finished pancaking half the New Jersey roster when Tortorella and Pete DeBoer marched toward each other and engaged in a profane debate.
"I just thought it was a legal hit," Tortorella said of the Rupp check on Peter Harrold that started the dustup. "None of that would've happened if we kept on playing the game."
So bad best-of-seven blood became the story after Devils 4, Rangers 1, an angle inspired by two coaches who clearly cannot stand each other, and by all the dumb penalties taken by the losing team. But it all started with Lundqvist. The Rangers don't unravel if their goaltender doesn't blink.
And blink Lundqvist did in the first period, with the Devils dominating as thoroughly as they dominated the first half of Game 3. He lost sight of a Bryce Salvador wrist shot, a relatively soft one, as it spun through two congested lanes of rush-hour traffic, and before the game's best goaltender knew it the puck was through his legs.
"A lot of guys were in front there, and you just hope," said Lundqvist, wearing his team cap and jacket as he sat in a quiet corner of his locker room. "I don't know what to say. I picked it up when it pretty much went through me there, and I was just guessing."
Guessing? Lundqvist had done a lot of things in this series, but guessing wasn't among them.
"I have to be a little more active to try to find it," he said, "but it wasn't enough."
Rangers lose, hockey wins. This series now appears destined to go seven, to make an indelible mark on the sport and those just now gravitating toward it. If Rangers-Devils 2012 isn't likely to match the 1994 classic, Mark Messier would at least guarantee that Tortorella will make a spectacle of himself, again, before the series is through.
As it turned out, Tortorella behaved better in the postgame news conference than he did in the third period, when he had no business shouting at someone (DeBoer) whose only crime was objecting to Rupp's shot on Brodeur. Whatever. The fact Tortorella's team lost its composure wasn't as significant as the fact Lundqvist lost his groove.
He had shut out the Devils twice in three games, and two of the three goals he surrendered in Game 2 came on deflections. Monday night, the Devils weren't living on redirected luck. They came at Lundqvist with the desperation of a team facing a potential 3-1 series deficit, and the early returns weren't encouraging.
"It looked like it was going to be more of the same from [Game 3]," DeBoer said. "We had some quality chances early. Couldn't get one by him."
Finally from the left point -- eight minutes, 10 seconds into the night -- Salvador sent his harmless looking shot toward the net and killed the Rangers softly.
"It kind of lifted a weight off us," DeBoer said, "and I thought we played a little bit looser and a little bit freer from then on."
Lundqvist's breakdown had the feel of a blown Mariano Rivera save. Not even four minutes later, after Zach Parise blew past Michael Del Zotto near the boards, Parise's cross-ice pass made it safely through a sliding Dan Girardi and onto the stick of Travis Zajac, who beat a lunging Lundqvist from the left circle.
"I know I have the answers for the goals that I can play a little differently," Lundqvist would say, "but it's easy to sit here now and realize what I should've done. I just have to move on and be even better in the next one."
Lundqvist conceded he had no acceptable explanation for his team's flatline starts. "We just need to talk about a few things," he said, "and it's happened a few times in the playoffs here. But we got hurt today in the first half."
The Rangers got hurt because they asked a human being to be superhuman one time too many.
"I don't think I have to be extraordinary," Lundqvist maintained. "I just have to take care of business."
He took care of business so efficiently Saturday, making 36 saves, that DeBoer said, "Their goalie was the difference." Truth is, Lundqvist was the difference again Monday night, only in an entirely different context.
This night wasn't about Tortorella's pregame charges of flopping and illegal power-play picks, or the Rupp sucker punch, or the Torts-DeBoer shouting match. It was about the Rangers coming undone after their best player lost sight of the puck.
So the Prudential Center fans chanted Lundqvist's given name, and chanted that their goalie is better. Once upon a time, Brodeur was the baddest man on the planet, and for a long enough period to perhaps go down as the greatest of all time.
But Lundqvist is supposed to be the best goalie in this series. If he isn't the closer over the next three games that he was in the first three games, the Rangers will be back in Westchester next week booking tee times with the Knicks.