The Devils turned a stellar first nine minutes and an opportunistic final five into a stirring victory over the Rangers that moved New Jersey within one win of a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
Suddenly, No. 1 seed New York is on the brink — again.
No one would have guessed when Travis Zajac scored 9:49 in to give the Devils a three-goal lead that they would be desperately looking for one more late in the third to hold off the favored Rangers, who had fought back to tie and appeared to have every bit of the momentum.
But the game, and perhaps the entire Eastern Conference finals, changed in the blink of an eye when Ryan Carter put the Devils in front to stay.
Carter snapped a tie with 4:24 left, and New Jersey survived en route to a 5-3 victory over New York after blowing a three-goal lead in Game 5 on Wednesday night. The rugged fourth-line forward, who had only four goals and four assists in 72 games, already has three goals in the playoffs, including two this round.
The Devils, who led 3-0 before the first period was half over, have a 3-2 edge in the series and can advance to face the Los Angeles Kings with a win at home Friday. If the Rangers can stay alive, Game 7 would be at Madison Square Garden Sunday.
"It's a good feeling," goalie Martin Brodeur said of the Devils' status. "We worked really hard to get in that position. (There's been) a lot of unsung heroes and guys producing at different times. Players are playing well. We've just got to keep going.
"Nothing is done yet."
The Devils seemed primed for an easy win when Stephen Gionta and Patrik Elias scored within the first 4:13. Travis Zajac made it 3-0 before the Rangers woke up and began chipping away.
Brandon Prust brought New York within 3-1 before the first period was over, and Ryan Callahan made it a one-goal game in the first minute of the second. The Garden really rocked when Marian Gaborik tied it at 3 just 17 seconds into the third.
But the comeback was for naught. Carter put the Devils back in front, and Zach Parise sealed it with an empty-net goal.
"I thought," Rangers coach John Tortorella said, "we probably played our best game of the series."
Once Gaborik tied it with an unassisted goal that ricocheted in off the skate of Brodeur, it appeared the Rangers would ride the comeback all the way to one of the most stirring wins in team history — one that would rival victories over New Jersey in the classic 1994 East finals when the Rangers erased a 3-2 series hole behind Mark Messier's guarantee.
Carter made sure it wouldn't happen. At least not on this night.
"You have to (keep it together) this time of year," Gionta said. "You have to have a short memory. Fortunately we did and came out with the victory."
Ilya Kovalchuk knocked Michael Del Zotto off the puck in the right corner, and Gionta sent a pass in front to Carter — who had just charged in front from the bench — for a quick shot that beat Henrik Lundqvist.
"A great play by Kovy to separate their (defensemen) from the puck," Carter said. "Gio scooped the puck up, took a look and made a fantastic pass to me. All I had to do was redirect it."
New Jersey was outshot 28-17 and had only six shots in the third, but two went in. Now the Devils are on the verge of their first Cup finals appearance since they won their third title in 2003. Brodeur, the backbone of every New Jersey title, kept his focus throughout the third when he was loudly taunted with chants of "Mar-ty, Mar-ty."
"It was a mistake," Brodeur said of Gaborik's goal. "I'm pretty happy that the boys bounced back and made this a win for us. It would have been tough and people would have blamed that mishandle."
The Rangers were ultimately done in by another terrible start. For the 13th straight game, the team that scored first in New York's contests has won. The Rangers had been on a pattern of win-one, lose-one, but now they are on the verge of elimination with their second two-game losing streak in a series this year. The only time the Rangers have won two straight in a playoff series is when they overcame a 3-2 hole in the first round vs. Ottawa. They have faced elimination three times already this postseason.
"We have to. There is no other way around it," Lundqvist said of the Rangers' comeback chances. "We have to bring all the good things we did and keep doing them in the next game. We played really well in the second and third period."
They couldn't say the same about the first.
"It's different when you go down 3-0. You don't have a whole lot to lose," Rangers forward Brian Boyle said. "It was good nonetheless. Now it's 3-2. Now we have to win two. That's the bottom line."
The Rangers burned their timeout early, and Devils coach Peter DeBoer spent his with 10:17 left. Parise implored his teammates to, "Come on boys." and the messages from the coach and the captain did the trick.
But New Jersey surely never thought it would be in that kind of fight after storming in front early.
"It wasn't pretty by any means, what we did tonight," Parise said. "But we're going home with a 3-2 lead."
Not only didn't the Rangers have the strong start they craved and insisted they needed, they were practically run out of their building less than 10 minutes in. The same problems that plagued New York in its 4-1 loss in Game 4, when the Devils jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first, cropped up again in front of the home fans that grew frustrated and angry early.
Gionta got the Devils going 2:43 in when he gathered a rebound of Mark Fayne's shot right in front of Lundqvist, steadied himself without any pressure from the defense, and slipped in his third goal of the playoffs to start the barrage. Elias made it 2-0 just 1:30 later on New Jersey's fourth shot.
After Kovalchuk fumbled the puck just inside the blue line, he dived to keep it from leaving the Rangers' zone. The puck eventually came to Adam Henrique at the right point for a shot that was stopped by Lundqvist. Elias got it in front and scored his fourth.
Tortorella used his timeout then, but it made little difference. He appeared to be calm as he moved back and forth behind the bench while talking to his players. Whatever the message was didn't sink in. The Devils shrugged off a few scoring chances by the Rangers, and padded their lead again.
Just 5:26 after Elias' goal, Zajac made it 3-0 with his seventh of the playoffs. Bryce Salvador wiped out Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the New Jersey end and started the play going the other way. Zajac got a clean shot from just inside the right circle that sailed past Lundqvist and beat him inside the left post at 9:49.
The tide began to turn the Rangers' way the rest of the period as they allowed only one shot the rest of the period and began cutting into the deficit.
Prust, making his return following a one-game suspension for an elbow he delivered on Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov in Game 3, showed a scoring touch when he converted on a breakaway with 4:19 left in the first.
The Rangers outshot the Devils 9-6 in the lopsided first period, but continued their sudden defensive dominance well into the second. Then they cut the Devils' lead down to a goal just 32 seconds into the second.
Brandon Dubinsky, back from a foot injury, fired a shot from the left point that was deflected in front and caromed toward the left corner. Artem Anisimov flung the puck back toward the crease and it struck the left skate of the driving Callahan and got past Brodeur. The goal stood up after a brief video review.
New Jersey didn't record its first shot of the period, and its second since its third goal, until Henrique put a puck in on Lundqvist at 6:23.
Lundqvist, who had stopped 94 percent of the shots he faced in the playoffs before Wednesday, made just 12 saves. The Rangers allowed five goals one game after allowing four for the first time in this postseason.
To make the finals now, New York will have to win a third consecutive seven-game series. The Rangers have already played 19 postseason games.
"We have to have a short memory," McDonagh said. "We've been in this position before in this playoffs and we found a way to get it done. We don't want to look ahead. We have to win two games, but we just have to focus on winning one."
Notes: Dubinsky had been sidelined since he was injured in the Rangers' victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the first round. He sat out all seven games of the second round against Washington and the first four against New Jersey. John Mitchell was scratched to make room in the lineup. Prust's return forced D Steve Eminger to sit out after he played the two previous games. ... Kovalchuk has 10 assists in the postseason. ... Prust scored his first career NHL playoff goal in his 23rd game. ... The game was played on the 18-year anniversary of Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals. The Devils won that game, 4-1, took a 3-2 series lead, and prompted the Messier guarantee the following day.