NEW YORK -- The sight of the New Jersey Devils swaggering into Madison Square Garden on Wednesday and shoving the New York Rangers to the brink of missing the Stanley Cup finals rather than allowing them to claw one win away from moving on wasn't as shocking as the way it happened.
This was like seeing Secretariat caught in the homestretch of the Belmont. This was like seeing someone barge into the Louvre and draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa, then cackle all the way home.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist -- the man the Rangers like to tout as the MVP of the league this season, not just the best goaltender in the league -- was beaten for two goals in the first 4½ minutes and three goals on the first five shots he faced.
And then the rest of the Rangers -- hard as they tried and close as they came -- couldn't bail out Lundqvist on the rare night that he needed them to save him, for a change.
"I actually thought our start was pretty good. ... And then it just kinda happened: 'Bang, bang, bang,'" shellshocked Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said.
The Rangers did roar back to tie the game at 3 -- only to see the Devils scored the game winner with 4:14 to play when Ilya Kovalchuk and then Stephen Gionta outfought two Rangers who had followed them behind the net for the puck, and Gionta slid a brilliant cross-ice pass on a sharp angle to Ryan Carter, who was flying toward the left post. He tipped the puck past Lundqvist before he had time to flinch.
Then the Devils added an empty-net goal to finish off the Rangers, 5-3, and seize a 3-2 lead in this Eastern Conference finals series that they can clinch Friday in New Jersey.
Afterward, Lundqvist sat at his locker, ripping the tape off his skates and speaking in a near-whisper to reporters most of the time he did talk. Like a lot of the Rangers, he looked as if he'd just been sucker punched. His expression was grave. He seemed both inconsolable and irritated with himself, frustrated by some bad bounces and yet begrudgingly willing to acknowledge that even if a couple of the Devils' goals came on seeing-eye bounces, he and the Rangers got what they deserved on two of the other goals they gave up.
"Unfortunately, I thought we had the puck -- I really didn't see their guy [Carter] coming back door," Lundqvist said of the Devils' game winner.
Would he change anything before that?
"My luck, maybe," Lundqvist muttered, shaking his head. "I was right there for the first [goal], and especially the second one, but I was a little slow to react even though I was in good position. I think after that it was all us [dominating the game]. And we did so many good things. ... But they got the goals early on and, and then -- ugggh."
He shook his head again and said, "It's disappointing."
It's worse than disappointing for the Rangers. What the Devils have done to them the past two games has to be unsettling too.
To a man, the handful of Rangers who spoke after the game all said they had just played their best game of the series. And yet the Devils still beat them, 5-3. So what does that say?
At minimum, it proves the Rangers have a slimmer chance of pulling out this series the way they escaped Ottawa by winning the last two games of their seven-game first round series, or they way rallied to knock off Washington in a Game 7 at the Garden in the second round. The Rangers' brinksmanship has never looked more likely to catch up to them than it has after these last two games. Twice they had a chance to put a vise-grip on the series and they failed both times.
The Rangers justifiably pride themselves on their resiliency every bit as much as they boast about Lundqvist being the best goaltender in the league -- not just in this series. But the Devils have now methodically, relentlessly, dented both claims, and often looked like the deeper, meaner, and more resourceful team while doing it. Which is saying something.
The Rangers hit New Jersey with everything they had Wednesday, and the Devils proved they have a granite jaw of their own after the Rangers matched their 3-0 start with three unanswered goals too -- the third one off a mistake by Devils goaltender, Martin Brodeur, who ranged too far out of the net and mishandled the puck, leading to Marian Gaborik's unassisted goal just 17 seconds into the third period.
The Devils absorbed all that, and then raised the Rangers one better. They pulled out this game in the end the way the Rangers usually do: by gouging out a puck behind the net, then opportunistically pouncing on a scoring chance -- all before Lundqvist, for a change, had time to react.
"This will be really tough tonight," Lundqvist allowed, "but tomorrow, we won't think about this.
The Rangers have 48 hours to come up with something new. Or at least get back the old, indomitable Lundqvist.