It has been a tale of two series for the Rangers, who looked unstoppable with two 5-1 wins to open the series before dropping the next 3 games by a combined score of 9-2. With their backs against the wall, they took care of business in Game 6 with a 5-2 win to force this pivotal affair. Rangers coach Gerard Gallant shuffled lines, putting RW Vladimir Tarasenko on the top line with C Mika Zibanejad and LW Chris Kreider, and the trio responded with 3 goals and 4 assists in Game 6.
New Jersey is just 4-for-21 (19%) on the power play in the series. The Devils pulled their goalie on a power play with 5 minutes left in the game, down 5-1, and converted to make it 5-2. However, they couldn’t get any closer in Game 6, but that move indicates anything can happen in Game 7. Could we see a goalie swap after Akira Schmid was replaced?
Michael McLeod and Tomas Tatar scored second-period goals in the series decider and Erik Haula and Jesper Bratt added insurance goals in the third in the game between the long-time Hudson River rivals.
Coming off a franchise best 52-win season, the Devils will open the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday against the Metropolitan Division-winning Hurricanes in Raleigh, North Carolina. Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is on Friday night.
Igor Shesterkin was outstanding in defeat, stopping 20 shots, including Jack Hughes’ breakaway late in a scoreless first period.
Schmid who had played in a total of 24 regular season games, was the difference in this series, posting two shutouts. After New York had a pair of 5-1 wins in the opening two games in New Jersey against starter Vitek Vanecek, Devils coach Lindy Ruff switched to the 22-year-old Swiss netminder.
Over the next five games, Schmid went 4-1, allowing a total of two goals in his first three games, including a 4-0 shutout in Game 5. He was driven from the net in Game 6 of a 5-2 loss in Madison Square Garden after giving up all five goals, but the Devils went with him in Game 7 and he delivered.
Schmid stopped a pair of Mike Zibanejad power-play blasts in the first period and made a great glove save on Vincent Trocheck with the score still 2-0 in the third period.
New Jersey broke things open midway through the second period on plays set up by playoff veteran Ondrej Palat and defenseman John Marino.
With the Rangers about to go on a power play, Palat, who won two Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, outworked a slipping Chris Kreider and star defenseman Adam Fox along the right boards for a loose puck. He skated toward the net, slid a pass under a sliding Zibanejad and found McLeod, who patiently skated around Shesterkin and deposited a backhander into an empty net at 9:53 for a short-handed goal. It was his first goal since January.
Marino took a cross-ice pass from Nico Hischier at the Rangers’ right point later in the period, swept in on Shesterkin and had the puck slide off his stick to the corner. He retrieved it, and threw a blind pass toward the crease that found Tartar for quick shot into the net at 15:39.
“I’m beating myself up pretty good,” he said. “I think we had an opportunity tonight in a Game 7, and I personally feel responsible for some of the goals they scored. Being a veteran guy, I’m supposed to be defensively responsible. I can’t be on the ice for all four goals against and hurt us like that.”
The Rangers won the first two games of the series in New Jersey, only to see the Devils roll off three straight wins. New York pushed it to a seventh game with a win at home in Game 6, only to fall short.
The Devils took a 1-0 lead on a spectacular bit of penalty killing by Ondrej Palat.
With Jesper Bratt in the penalty box for tripping, Palat hounded both defenseman Adam Fox and forward Kreider in their own zone, eventually forcing a turnover. The Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad made a desperation slide to cut off Palat from the Rangers’ net, but he found teammate Michael McLeod with a pass. McLeod sent a slow-motion backhand shot into the net at 9:53 of the second period.
“An incredible effort. I mean, that is just playoff hockey. The first, second and third effort. To stay on it. To create the turnover and get it to Michael. That’s why we have him there,” Ruff said.
New Jersey made it 2-0 on a play that started with a brilliant rush to the net by defenseman John Marino. Igor Shesterkin made the save, but Marino controlled the puck and sent it back toward the crease. That’s where Tomas Tatar quickly flicked the puck behind Shesterkin at 15:39 of the second, and the Devils carried that lead into the second intermission.
The third period saw emotions run hotter after Rangers captain Jacob Trouba administered yet another thunderous hit in the playoffs, as he did several times last postseason. As the Devils’ Timo Meier cut through the middle of the Rangers’ zone, Trouba tucked his arm in and laid Meier out. The Devils winger was flat on his back until finally leaving the ice on his own for the dressing room. Trouba wasn’t penalized.
Ruff didn’t have an update on Meier but summed up his view of the hit, saying, “I thought there was contact with the head, but I’d have to look at it again.”
The Devils put a dagger in their rivals at 14:27 of the third period on an Erik Haula goal, which sent many of the Rangers fans who had invaded Prudential Center walking toward the exits. Bratt added an empty-netter to cap off the scoring.
“I kind of felt the tension between the two fan bases. It’s a pretty big deal here, so everybody was excited for this round and I thought it was a great round. I’m so happy we won,” Palat said.
For the Devils, the game was a microcosm of the rest of the series — for better and for worse.
They exhibited the lack of discipline that helped the Rangers use their power play to win three games in the series, including the first two in New Jersey. The Devils handed their rivals four power-play chances in the first two periods. They weren’t just tempting fate; they were also keeping their best offensive players off the ice while killing those penalties.
But kill them they did, which was indicative of another series-long trend in the Devils’ wins: Controlling play with their speed, puck possession and defense. They were careful with the puck and patient on their passes.
When they needed him, Schmid was there for several key saves. His highlights included high-danger chances by Artemi Panarin and Kane, and a flashy glove stop on a Vincent Trocheck late in the third period.
For Ruff, a season that started with fans chanting “Fire Lindy” ended with him coaching the Devils to their first playoff series win since 2012.
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