There’s a saying in sports that it’s not a series until someone loses at home. Well, we have a series in the Battle of the Hudson River. For the third straight round, the New York Rangers failed to win Game 2 and take a 2-0 series lead before hitting the road. For the Devils, it was the second straight series where they bounced back from a Game 1 loss to even things up heading home. In many ways, Game 2 was a reverse mirror of Game 1. On Monday night, the Devils played well through the first two periods, but ran out of gas in the 3rd. The Rangers played a decent 1st period and a strong 2nd period, but looked completely flat in the 3rd. The game-winning goal for the Rangers in Game 1 came early in the 3rd period off the stick of Dan Girardi. The Devils game-winner last night also came early in the 3rd, courtesy of David Clarkson, who is now tied with the Kings’ Dustin Brown for the most game-winning goals in the playoffs with three (4 of his 5 career playoff goals are game-winners). Devils goalie Martin Brodeur played well in Game 1, but lost. Brodeur looked strong again in Game 2, but got the win this time.
The Devils made some crucial adjustments in Game 2 that made a big difference en route to the Game 2 victory. The first major adjustment was some line shuffling by head coach Peter DeBoer. He reunited Devils captain Zach Parise on the top line with RW Ilya Kovalchuk. The top line generated opportunities throughout the 1st period and were able to translate that chemistry to the power play on the Devils first goal. Parise found a wide open Kovalchuk, who then drove to the net and rifled one over Henrik Lundqvist’s glove-side shoulder. That got the Devils going, but that would also be the last “clean” goal of the night. The Rangers would tie the game on a Marc Staal shot that went wide, took an odd bounce off the boards, and found its way in to the net off of the back of Martin Brodeur. The Rangers then took the lead ten minutes later when an Anton Stralman shot was tipped in front of the net off the shaft of Chris Kreider’s stick. The other big adjustment that New Jersey made was making a concerted effort to get traffic in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Their efforts began to pay off just 6 minutes after Kredier’s go-ahead goal. Young Devils winger Ryan Carter beautifully redirected a Bryce Salvador shot from the point to tie the game at 2 heading in to the 2nd intermission. Just under three minutes in to the 3rd, David Clarkson tipped in an Adam Henrique down to the ice and it then bounced by Lundqvist to give New Jersey the lead for good. This would be the 5th straight playoff series that the Devils would split the first two games.
While things went real well for the Devils throughout the game, it was a dicey 3rd period for the Blueshirts. Not only did they look flat, but Rangers winger Marian Gaborik was bound to the bench by John Tortorella for a good chunk of the 3rd period. While Tortorella didn’t give his reasoning for the benching (Torts doesn’t give his reasoning for any of his decisions nowadays), but it’s safe to say that it was because of a Gaborik gaffe on a clearing attempt in the 2nd period that lead to Ryan Carter’s tying goal. There was also a Gaborik shot block attempt where he stiffened up heading towards the shooter instead of getting down to a knee to block the shot. We all know Tortorella’s mantra of “if you don’t block shots, you don’t play.” I’m a firm believer in rewarding those who play hard and sitting those who don’t. I won’t argue that Gaborik didn’t deserve to be benched, but timing is everything. When you’re down a goal with an entire period of hockey left, is it really wise to bench a 41-goal scorer for more than half of it? Gaborik may not be scoring the highlight-reel goals we’ve come accustom to seeing from him, but he’s 2nd on the team in goals scored and points (4 goals, 10 points). Making an example of someone sends a strong message, but doing it to your regular season scoring leader in the 3rd period of a playoff game where one goal can make a difference is a questionable move.
I’m a big fan of Tortorella, but this is the second time we’ve seen him send a message at the wrong time during a Rangers playoff run. In his first season behind the New York bench, the Rangers had a 3-1 series lead in the first round heading back to Washington against the 2nd seeded Capitals. There is no doubt that Sean Avery was one of the X-factors for the Rangers in that series up to that point. He gave the Rangers an edge and was getting under the Capitals skin. But towards the end of the 2-1 Game 4 win for the Rangers, Avery was called for two penalties in the final 10 minutes, forcing the Rangers to kill off power plays while nursing a lead. Tortorella chose to sit Avery for Game 5 as punishment (Tortorella would get himself suspended for Game 6 for disciplinary reasons due to an altercation with a Washington fan in Game 5, not exactly practicing what you preach when it comes to staying disciplined). The Rangers lost Game Five 4-0, their momentum disappeared, and would then lose the final two games and the series. If you want to send a message to a player in Game 60 of the regular season against the Minnesota Wild, go for it. But Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals is hardly the time or place. There is still plenty of hockey left in this series, but a Gaborik bounce back performance in Game 3 is the only way Tortorella’s benching will be justified.