NEWARK, N.J. — The last time the New York Rangers played in New Jersey, they established a 2-0 series lead and had many wondering if the upstart Devils weren’t ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs spotlight.
But after Thursday night’s Game 5 at Prudential Center, the Devils had a 4-0 win and a 3-2 series lead after their third straight victory, pushing their shell-shocked archrivals to the brink of elimination.
“A few too many times we’ve been in this situation,” Rangers winger Chris Kreider said. “So win one hockey game at home.”
The Rangers trailed 3-2 in all three of their playoff series in 2022. They rallied to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes in seven games; they were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games in the Eastern Conference finals.
Kreider admitted that the Rangers had let their advantage over the Devils slip away in two losses at Madison Square Garden.
“We’ve had a terrific fan base all year. We let them down, we let ourselves down at home,” he said. “So it’s up to us to show up and play the way we want to play from puck drop.
“All the cliches and euphemisms I throw at you guys all year, it’s time to step up and do those things, right? It’s time to play for a full 60 minutes. It’s time to win a hockey game.”
The Devils controlled play for the second straight game, using their speed and tenacious puck-hounding defense to frustrate the Rangers’ offense and create chances of their own off the rush.
“We’ve gotta get pucks behind them. You can’t be stubborn with how you play,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said. “You’ve gotta play the game in front of you. Can’t force pucks at the blue line or the red line. It’s not a recipe to win against that team.”
Coach Gerard Gallant blasted his players’ effort after Game 4, saying they “didn’t show up” in the loss. Yet he felt they were better in Game 5, despite getting shut out and getting outshot 20-2 in the third period.
“I got no problem with their effort tonight. They competed,” he said. “Jersey played a hell of a game, You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They played their best game in the series tonight.”
The Devils took a 1-0 lead just 39 seconds into the game on a goal by Ondrej Palat, his second of the series. It remained that way until Erik Haula‘s power-play goal at 3:27 of the second period, with Patrick Kane in the penalty box for tripping. The Rangers had an opportunity later in the period on the power play, with Devils defensemen Damon Severson and Kevin Bahl in the box. Instead, it was Haula feeding Dawson Mercer on a 2-on-1 for a shorthanded goal. Haula added an empty netter for the 4-0 win.
Rookie goalie Akira Schmid had his strongest game of the series, stopping all 23 shots he faced for his first playoff shutout. He replaced starter Vitek Vanecek after Game 2, and the Devils have won all three games with Schmid between the pipes.
“That had nothing to do with Vitek. That had to do with the group not playing well in front of him,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “We took a shot at it in Game 3, and the whole group realized we needed to play better.”
The biggest improvement for the Devils has been the biggest deficiency for the Rangers. In the first two games of the series, New York scored two power-play goals in each. Since then, it’s gone 0-for-10.
“We had that in our favor early in the series, and it didn’t go our way tonight. So that’s gotta be better,” Kreider said.
Ruff said the Devils’ penalty kill has taken away one of the Rangers’ strengths as a team.
“I don’t think it’s their only strength, but it is one of their strengths,” he said. “They get a lot of energy from it. They’re a skilled group that’s tough to defend 4-on-5.”
A powerless power play, a group of offensive stars that is struggling to create chances and a veteran team that’s lost control of this series. That’s what the Rangers are as they head into Saturday night’s Game 6 at the Garden.
“You have to keep levelheaded, but of course you’re frustrated,” defenseman Adam Fox said. “You want to score. You want to win games. And obviously, at this time, you need to win games to keep your season alive.”