Rangers run out of playoff luck as Game 5 rally goes awry at the worst time

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – King Henrik slumped in his throne. He twiddled his thumbs, picked at his hands and crossed his arms as if he were cold. He looked down. A lot.

"It just hurts, the way it ends, a late goal there," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, sitting in the New York Rangers' dressing room Wednesday night after their devastating 5-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils. "We worked so hard to get back in this game. We did so many good things. So, uh …"

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He took a deep breath.

"We just have to remember that for the next one, how many good things we actually did tonight, and hopefully we can get two straight here."

Yes, the Rangers did many good things. As several of them said, they probably played their best game of the series. After spotting the Devils three goals, they came back and tied it, dominating much of the game before allowing the winner with 4:24 to go and an empty-netter in the dying seconds. New Jersey veteran Patrik Elias went as far as to say the Devils stole the game.

And so no, the Eastern Conference final is not over, despite the Devils' 3-2 series lead entering Game 6 on Friday night in Newark. The Rangers are all about guts and resiliency. In the first round, they lost Game 5 at home, won Game 6 in Ottawa and beat the Senators in seven. In the second round, they beat the Washington Capitals in seven. They are 3-0 when facing elimination.

"We've been here before," said Rangers coach John Tortorella.

[Related: Devils triumph over Rangers in wacky Game 5 ]

But how many times is too many? How many times can the Rangers grind it out?

Say they win Game 6. They still have to win Game 7. Say they win Game 7. They still have to beat the Los Angeles Kings to win the Stanley Cup.

And though they are a No. 1 seed that nearly had the NHL's best record in the regular season, while the Kings are a No. 8 seed that barely made the playoffs, the Rangers have gone 10-9 in the postseason against sixth, seventh and eighth seeds. Conversely, the Kings have gone 12-2 against first, second and third seeds.

If they make the final, the Rangers will have two days to rest after playing the maximum 21 games. The Kings will have had eight days to recoup after playing only 14 games, tied for the fewest through three rounds in NHL history. It would be like the Rangers played one more full series.

No team has gone seven games in the first two rounds and won the Cup. Only one team has won three seven-game series and won the Cup – last year's Boston Bruins. There is guts, and there is resiliency, and then there is pushing your luck.

We're about to find out just how far it can be pushed.

"Obviously you lean on what we've done in the past, but it's a different team, different series," said Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. "Whatever we did right tonight, we have to start that way in Game 6 and let it play out."

You never know how it will play out. Look at Game 5. As Devils coach Pete DeBoer said: "It was an adventure." There were weird bounces, close calls, controversial calls. There were things never seen before, like Rangers center Brad Richards apparently trying to fire the puck behind the New York net and actually taking a shot on goal, forcing Lundqvist to make a save on a teammate in the third period of a tie game.

Lundqvist, a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player in the regular season, hadn't given up more than three goals in a game this postseason. He gave up four – three in the first 9:49. A rebound by a guy left wide open in front. A redirection off a New York player’s skate. A shot off the wing he usually stops easily.

The way the pucks were leaking in, did he question anything at that point?

"My luck, maybe," he said with a little laugh.

The Rangers insisted their start wasn't as bad as it looked. They said the pucks just went in. Maybe they're right.

[Related: Los Angeles Kings latest surprise team to make championship run]

And they did carry the play for the last 10 minutes of the first period and the full 20 minutes of the second, pinning the Devils in their zone on the forecheck, as New Jersey had done to New York for much of the series.

The Rangers got on the board late in the first. They got a break in the second, when a puck went off the left leg of captain Ryan Callahan and the league ruled it wasn't kicked in. They almost tied it later in the second, when a Callahan shot might have hit the left post and scooted across the goal line. At the very least, it definitely hit the right post and nearly banked in off Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador.

But maybe that dominance was really a function of the score. The Rangers were desperate, and the Devils, though they didn't try to sit back, didn't push quite as hard as they had before.

"When you get that type of lead, your mindset changes just a little bit, and that's all it takes – a fraction," DeBoer said. "You're a step slow on the forecheck. 'Maybe I shouldn't be going here.' And then you're in between. And then you get caught. So I think that's what happened. It was just a slight change of mindset."

The Rangers tied the game 17 seconds into the third when they got another break. Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur went out to his right to play the puck, but it drifted just outside the trapezoid. He couldn't touch it. As he retreated, Rangers winger Marian Gaborik fired the puck at him. The puck ricocheted off Brodeur, off a goal post, off his left skate and in.

"MAAARTY!" the fans chanted. "MAAARTY!"

It was deafening.

But when you push your luck, sometimes you run out of it. And when you leave yourself little margin for error, one breakdown can cancel out all the good things.

The game reset. The Rangers were less dominant. The Devils started skating again. Winger Ilya Kovalchuk came hard on the forecheck and knocked Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto off the puck in the right-wing corner. Devils winger Stephen Gionta grabbed the puck and passed it in front before taking a hit from Girardi, whose stick was high instead of on the ice, where it could have stopped the puck. Devils center Ryan Carter banged it home before Lundqvist could react.

For all their guts and resiliency, the Rangers were beaten in the end by the kind of play that has been biting them all series. "When we're playing well, that's what we're doing," said Devils captain Zach Parise. And when the Rangers aren't playing well, that's what they're doing.

"I wish it didn't end the way it did," Lundqvist said. "We did so many good things. I thought we had this one. But we came up a little short."

You wonder if he'll say the same thing at the end of the series.

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