It was game four of the playoffs, but the New York Rangers played as if it was game four of the regular season. In front of a raucous Manhattan crowd fresh off celebrating a Knicks victory to go up 3-1 in their first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, the Blueshirts couldn’t do the same.
They were outplayed and outworked by the New Jersey Devils, who received a go-ahead goal from an unlikely source in Jonas Siegenthaler en route to a 3-1 victory on Monday at Madison Square Garden. The win evens this best-of-seven series at two games apiece, whereas the road team has won all four games.
The saying is, “A series doesn’t start until a team loses at home.” In the case of this series, it starts once a team wins at home, which is what the Devils will look to do in game five on Thursday at 7:30PMET in Prudential Center.
Meanwhile, the Rangers will be searching for answers as to why a suddenly scalding offense cooled, and a potent power play became powerless. They arrived home after pummeling their rivals 10-2 on the other side of the Hudson River in the first two contests, yet only scored two goals in 131:36 on Broadway.
“We didn’t show up,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “We didn’t play hard enough. We didn’t compete hard enough. All we did is yap at the linesmen for getting thrown out of the faceoffs”. Who they should’ve been yapping at is themselves for sleep-skating through the first 40 minutes of game four. After Saturday’s hard-fought 2-1 overtime loss in game three, the expectation was the Rangers would set the tone and push their rivals to the brink of elimination.
But they allowed the Devils to waltz into the offensive zone and use their trademark speed to dictate play. Conversely, the Devils imposed their 1-2-2 defense without much pushback. Goaltender Akira Schmid, who improved to 2-0 in the series, made 22 saves on 23 shots but was rarely under siege despite struggling with his rebound control. “Schmid has proven he’s a playoff goaltender”, a jubilant Devils fan said. “He just needs to fix how he handles rebounds.”
It wasn’t until the 1:42 mark of the third period that a Blueshirt made an impact. Vincent Trocheck scored to tie the score and bring the Garden to life. But the momentum was short-lived, as Siegenthaler, who scored four goals in the regular season, wired home his first career playoff tally with a shot from the point, putting New Jersey ahead for good.
TRACK & FIELD:
Right from the get-go, this was a Devils-brand hockey game. The Blueshirts looked to push the pace and welcomed playing a track meet with the Devils, who paced the league with 43 goals off the rush in the regular season and added 39 breakaway goals.
It didn’t take long for them to seize their first early opportunity of the series, and it came from none other than Jack Hughes. The Devils’ 21-year-old center has shined in his playoff debut and put his team on the board for the second straight game.
Following consecutive saves from goaltender Akira Schmid on Kaapo Kakko off the rush and Alexis Lafreniere on the rebound, Siegenthaler lifted the puck off the goal line and out to center ice. Hughes picked it up, and outmaneuvered Shesterkin for a 1-0 New Jersey lead a mere 2:50 into the contest.
That marked Hughes’s third goal of the series and drew boos from the Garden faithful every time he touched the puck after that. They didn’t phase the superstar, who set a franchise record with 99 points in the regular season. “I don’t hear them. I’m focused on the game”, he said.
Hughes added he decided to go with his forehand against Shesterkin after missing toward the end of game three on his backhand. “He’s a good goalie, and I’m a good player. Either he’s going to stop it, or I’m going to score.”
THE POWERLESS PLAY:
The Blueshirts’ power play, which began the series 4 for 7, is now in an 0 for 11 slump. In their three attempts on Monday, they again looked stagnant and struggled to sustain offensive zone pressure or hit the net.
As Gallant noted earlier in the season, “Our top players need to be our top players,” which hasn’t been the case with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. After cracking the 90-point threshold in the regular season, the two have gone awry since the playoffs began. While they’ve succeeded at simplifying their game to help defend, their offense has been anemic.
Zibanejad led New York with 20 power-play goals in the regular season, and Panarin is the Blueshirts’ $11.6 million man. But the two have combined for no goals and four assists thus far, and two have come on the man advantage. “We tried to do it all on one play instead of chipping away and earning our chances,” Zibanejad said. “We have to return to how we played during the season. We have to trust each other.”
DESPITE A FUSE, THEY STILL LOSE:
In an attempt to shake things up, Gallant switched his centers. Zibanejad centered Panarin and Vladimir Tarasenko, while Vincent Trocheck flanked Chris Kreider and Patrick Kane. “Just trying to get something going,” he said. “Trying to wake something up.”
The moves initially flipped a switch, as Trocheck scored off a Kreider rebound to tie the score early in the third period.
But with 11:38 remaining, a Rangers turnover led to Nico Hischier completing a cross-ice pass to Siegenthaler, who blasted the disc past Igor Shesterkin to give New Jersey a 2-1 lead. It was a pass New York’s defenseman had picked off all series until that moment.
The goal turned the defenseman from zero to hero, as he was scratched for game two after a soft performance in game one. “It wasn’t fun, but I learned from it,” Siegenthaler said. “I had to be more physical and harder.”
As if giving the lead back wasn’t enough, Nico Hischier barreled into Shesterkin’s cage moments later.
Typically, you would see an angry response by the Rangers through a scrum, a fight, or even a bone-crunching hit. But there was none of that on this night, which summed up their uninspiring tenacity. With 2:00 left, the Rangers pulled Shesterkin and sent out Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin, Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Adam Fox, hoping for a game-tying tally. No shots came off the hail-mary attempt, and Ondrej Palat would later score an empty-net goal, sealing the victory.
BLS FAN COMMENT OF THE NIGHT: “The difference is the power play. The Devils have 7 goals in 4 games including a penalty shot and an empty netter. It’s 2-2, best of 3 now.”- Barry Green