GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Everything about the New York Rangers’ first two playoff games has been familiar.
The opponent, the results, the situations, and when the winning goals are scored.
The Rangers only have to think back one year to remember what it’s like to carry a 2-0 first-round series lead into Madison Square Garden. If things go as New York hopes starting Sunday, the New Jersey Devils will be another memory by the time Game 4 is over on Wednesday.
“Last year we saw that we were better than Atlanta,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist said of that Rangers’ first-round sweep. “This year it’s a tight race.”
Maybe only in theory.
The Rangers beat the Devils in the opening two games of the series in New Jersey, outscoring them 6-2 – including 5-1 in the decisive third periods. While the numbers appear stark, they are merely a continuation of New York’s dominant regular season against its cross-river rival.
It took until the final day of the season for the Devils to get the upper hand. Home-ice advantage was on the line last Sunday, and New Jersey salvaged one win in the season series to secure it.
So far, it hasn’t made a bit of difference.
New York has held a 2-0 edge in a seven-game series eight times since the 1967 expansion and advanced in all but one. Of those, three ended in sweeps. The Devils have won only one series after trailing 2-0.
“We’ve got a 2-0 lead, but I don’t think we outplayed them,” said Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr, who snapped a scoreless tie Friday in the third period of a 2-1 win. “We were able to score goals at the right time. Maybe we were more lucky.
“We have to keep working hard and finish it. It’s not easy. The next step is tough and the next one will be even tougher.”
If it’s close in the third period, as it has been in all 10 games between the teams, the edge clearly rests with the Rangers. New York has outscored New Jersey 12-2 over the final 20 minutes, and beaten them three times after regulation.
“We have to keep our heads up,” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. “It’s all about our work ethic and intensity. We were a lot tougher and we got in their faces a lot more. We had our opportunities on the power play and we created nothing.
“At the end of the day, that’s what’s been killing us.”
The Devils were tied in each of the first two third periods of the series, only to see things unravel.
“It’s not like we outshot them or outchanced them 40-10,” Jagr said after practice Saturday. “We scored maybe a lucky goal and it changed the game. That’s what we need, but it could go the other way. We have to make sure it doesn’t go the other way.”
For the fourth straight time, spanning three playoff years, the Rangers are returning home with a series sitting at 2-0. In the first round of 2006, the Devils held that edge and knocked the Rangers out in a sweep.
Last year, the Rangers did that to Atlanta before facing an 0-2 hole in the second round against Buffalo. New York held serve at home, yet lost in six games.
“We believed that Atlanta could turn that series around in a heartbeat and we certainly feel the same way about New Jersey,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “But we have to pay attention to the task at hand. History is nice to reflect on in July.”
Summer vacation could come much sooner for the Devils if they can’t find a way to put pucks past Lundqvist, who has not shown any weakness against them.
During the regular season, New Jersey scored only nine goals in eight games against Lundqvist, who shut them out twice and allowed just one goal on three other occasions.
It’s been over a year since the Devils beat the Rangers on the road, and they needed a shootout to do it – as they did to earn their only victory against New York this season.
“Obviously ‘must win’ gets thrown out there a lot,” Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. “You don’t want to go down 3-0. We understand what that means. We have to throw it all out there. We’ve been close in these games, but we have to find that little extra to put us over the top.”
They would be wise not to wait until the third period to get it done.
Whether the Rangers do anything different or special in the final frame is open to debate. The results, however, are not. New York won six times during the regular season when trailing after two periods and lost just once in regulation when leading through 40 minutes.
And playing nail-biters doesn’t faze them much, either. Playing a defensive-minded system – not unlike how the Devils won three championships since the Rangers’ last title in 1994 – has become quite familiar and comfortable to New York.
The Rangers earned 20 of their 42 regular-season wins in games in which they scored three goals or fewer.
“I like the way we play as a team when it’s a low-scoring game,” Lundqvist said. “We really pay attention to the details. We all know that mistakes are crucial when you have a low-scoring game. It’s good that we feel comfortable going into games like this. We got a lot of practice during the year.”