NEWARK, N.J. - Between the pucks they gave away and the ill-timed and ill-advised punches they threw, the New York Rangers lost their cool and squandered another chance to make things a whole lot easier for themselves.
For the third straight series, the top-seeded Rangers are all even through four games and might be tempting fate a bit as they move deeper into the Eastern Conference Finals. Once again, they had a chance to move two games ahead in a series.
Again, they let it slip away.
New York was sloppy and undisciplined throughout a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Monday night that squared the series at 2-2. The Rangers have managed to bounce back from two other Game 4 losses this year, and will need to refocus quickly if they hope to make the most of home-ice advantage and move on to the Stanley Cup finals.
The first crack in the Rangers' psyche became evident on Saturday in their 3-0 victory in Game 3. Rugged forward Brandon Prust landed an elbow to the back of the helmet of Devils defenceman Anton Volchenkov. The hit went unpenalized on the ice, but Prust was given a one-game suspension that he served during the Game 4 loss.
Rangers coach John Tortorella went on the offensive during Sunday's off day, saying the Devils got away with questionable hits, pick plays on faceoffs, and embellishing to try to draw penalties when struck by the Rangers.
New York captain Ryan Callahan said he didn't think any of that carried over to Game 4, but rather this is just the natural progression of a series between two heated rivals.
"We play these guys every other night," he said. "You're going to have games where it's a little chippy and things like that. It was just one of those games."
While goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been there throughout the playoffs to bail out his teammates during rough starts, he couldn't do it on Monday. New Jersey grabbed the lead just 8:10 in, and Travis Zajac doubled it 3:49 later after a pair of mistakes by struggling defenceman Michael Del Zotto.
"We have to hold on to some pucks," the reasonably calm Tortorella said. "We had opportunities. We had the yips with it. We just gave it back to them, and they just progressed with their forecheck and momentum comes their way."
Del Zotto had three giveaways early, including one in the opening minutes of the second period that handed the Devils another scoring chance that they didn't finish. While it didn't produce a goal, it landed the 21-year-old defenceman on the bench for the rest of the frame.
He was still pinned there in the third, when he finally received the chance to hit the ice and stretch his legs. It wasn't to play, but instead to serve Mike Rupp's 4-minute roughing penalty after he threw a punch and connected with the chest and mask of Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
"It's a good sign, I guess, when they take liberties on players," Brodeur said. "That means they're getting off their game a little bit. We've been working really hard, putting our heads down, taking a lot of shots throughout the playoffs. It's no different in this series.
"We're going to keep doing the same. It's paying off for us to be disciplined about these things. I'm not just talking about me. It's not like I was going to hit him back anyway."
Stu Bickel, usually a defenceman, dressed in place of Prust to serve as a forward. He went back to defence to soak up Del Zotto's time while he sat on the bench.
"It was a struggle for him," Tortorella said of Del Zotto. "He hasn't had many games like that this year. I had an extra 'D' dressed, so we figured we'd take a little pressure off him—just let him watch it. Michael has gone through a great process. He's a big part of our club.
"He'll bounce back."
Del Zotto managed an assist on Ruslan Fedotenko's goal that made it 4-1 during one of his four third-period shifts. He isn't the only one who will need to pick up his game on Wednesday when the series shifts back to Madison Square Garden for Game 5.
Ryan McDonagh had his first NHL fight, surprisingly dropping his gloves to take on New Jersey rookie Adam Henrique 9:25 into the game—in between the Devils' first two goals.
Rupp avoided an ejection for his punch at his former teammate, Brodeur. But he racked up enough penalties—including a misconduct—that his night ended early.
"This is the playoffs," Devils forward David Clarkson said. "No one wants to take penalties and lose their composure. It's surprising. Both teams are battling hard, and it was one of those games and we stayed away from that stuff and played hockey."