By Steve Silverman
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The journey is a familiar one.
The Rangers move on to the fifth game of their Eastern Conference Finals series with the Devils tied at two games apiece. That’s the same position they were in against the Senators in the first round and the Capitals in the second round.
The Rangers emerged victorious in the seventh game in both series.
So outwardly, there’s plenty of confidence and defiance coming from the Rangers’ lockerroom. John Tortorella, who wears defiance as if it were a necessary part of his wardrobe, stated that his team had “been here before” and was capable of finding a way to survive once again.
But the big difference between this series and the previous two is that the Devils are a much more substantial team than either of the other opponents. Ottawa was lacking in defensive presence and perhaps a bit of grit. Washington simply did not have the offensive capabilities or the overall confidence. They had recently changed identities and become a defensive-minded team and in their heart of hearts, they knew the Rangers were the better team.
The Devils don’t have to make any such admission when they look in the mirror. They know they are as good or better than the Rangers because of the way this series has played out.
They may not have known that before their 4-1 win in Game 4, but Zach Parise took the game over and has dared Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik or Ryan Callahan to respond in kind. Parise was the most dynamic player on the ice by a wide margin, scoring two goals and setting up Travis Zajac with a perfect saucer pass in the first period that led to a picture-perfect snap shot past Henrik Lundqvist.
The Devils were much more ready than the Rangers to compete in Game 4, just as they were in Game 3. The difference was that they found the back of the net with two of their shots in the first period.
The first goal of the game has been decisive in this series. In Games 1 and 3, the Rangers scored that first goal. In games 2 and 4, the Devils got on the board first and seized control.
The Devils had plenty of response after losing Game 3. They were faster, quicker and sharper than the Rangers and credit has to be given to Peter DeBoer for changing his lines around and waking up his team’s offense. That’s not necessarily the move of a genius, but in this case it worked. The Devils knew where they were going and the Rangers tried to react. By the time they were able to steady the ship, they faced a 2-0 deficit in the first period and they were not able to dent Martin Brodeur until that deficit grew to 3-0 late in the third period.
Much was made of Ranger forward Mike Rupp’s shove of Brodeur in the third period, but that was hardly the kind of eruption that was seen between these two teams in the regular season. Rupp gave Brodeur a good shove in the chest and his hand slid up to the goalie’s face. Brodeur reacted as if he took a heavyweight punch, but seemed amused by it after the game. Tortorella and DeBoer went at it on the benches and both men kept the subject of their argument to themselves after the game. However, it’s safe to say that neither one will be inviting the other to a Memorial Day barbecue.
It’s not about social plans for the Rangers. Tortorella has to challenge his team yet again and get them to play at a higher level. What happened in the previous two series does not apply any longer. The Devils put together a decisive win when they needed it most and raised the standard in the series.
Now the Rangers must answer with their own vintage performance. If they don’t do something to wrest the momentum from the Devils besides depending on Lundqvist, the dreams of the second post-1940 Stanley Cup championship will evaporate shortly.
They have shown they can rebound and bounce back, but the opponent is much more formidable this time around.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).