NEWARK, N.J. – It seemed so easy for him to say Monday night, after the New Jersey Devils had won, 4-1, and tied the Eastern Conference final, 2-2. He had scored two goals and assisted on another. The New York Rangers had vented their frustration, with winger Mike Rupp sucker-punching goaltender Martin Brodeur and coach John Tortorella jawing at his counterpart, Pete DeBoer.
"It was the same," said captain Zach Parise of the Devils' effort. "Just the puck happened to go in tonight. That's the difference."
But he believed the Devils were doing the right things and would be rewarded. He really believed.
It was much harder for him to say it Monday morning, after the Devils had outplayed the Rangers for seven of nine periods, yet had won only once, yet had been shut out twice, yet had put only three pucks past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Devils were the ones in danger of venting their frustration at that point – none more than Parise, who had only one point in his past five games.
So many shots. So little to show for them.
"I know. I know," said Parise after the morning skate, repeating himself. "That's the way it's gone. You'd think after a while we'd get one that hit off a D-man and just went right on one of our [sticks] backdoor, but it hasn't happened yet. But it will. I think you keep doing the right things, it will."
Hockey players want to believe their effort will be rewarded. They have to believe that. They give too much to the game to give up all control, to accept that this is pinball on ice, a game of chance.
"Just hammer it," said Parise in the morning, laughing. "Hope it goes up the ramp."
They have to believe that if they keep hammering, they will increase their odds, that eventually they will get a bounce. Well, the Devils keep hammering Monday night and finally got their bounce.
Defenseman Bryce Salvador threw a routine shot toward the net from the left point. It didn't hit a defenseman and go right to one of the Devils' sticks backdoor, as Parise had predicted. Better yet for New Jersey, it hit the left skate of Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman and slipped right between Lundqvist's pads.
Just like that, 8:10 into the first period, the Devils led 1-0.
"I thought we put some pressure on early, and it looked like it was going to be more of the same from the night before," DeBoer said. "We had some quality chances early, couldn't get one by him. But obviously the first one was a big one. Kind of lifted a weight off us, and I thought we played a little bit looser and a little bit freer from then on."
Parise, especially. Soon afterward, he blew past defenseman Michael Del Zotto along the right-wing boards to create a 2-on-1. As defenseman Dan Girardi dove in a desperate attempt to break it up, Parise slipped a pass through Girardi's outstretched stick to Travis Zajac, who one-timed the puck past Lundqvist.
The Devils had scored two goals while the Rangers had taken only two shots. They had a 2-0 lead, and against the Rangers, a 2-0 lead can look like a 20-0 lead. Tortorella seems to have as many answers playing from behind as he does in a typical news conference – none. Tortorella shuffled his lines and benched Del Zotto, and the Rangers made a push in the second period. But Parise made it 3-0 on the power play early in the third by popping a rebound between Lundqvist's pads.
"You knew it was just a matter of time," said Zajac of Parise. "He doesn't take a game off. He's a competitor. He knows how to score."
No way the Rangers were going to come back now. They haven't scored four goals since Game 1 of Round 1.
Rupp made a run at defenseman Peter Harrold behind the New Jersey net, hitting him high. Apparently upset he was being called for a penalty, he came in front of the net and used his left arm to punch Brodeur, his former teammate. He didn't hit him that hard, but he struck him in the chest and then the mask – and Brodeur is a goalie. No one expects anyone to hit a goalie.
Brodeur said he was minding his own business. He said he had never been hit like that before in his career, and the 40-year-old has been tending goal for the Devils since the early 1990s. He said he was happy he wasn't hurt, but he wasn't hurt and sounded only happy afterward, saying he was a tough guy and could take a punch. Why wouldn't he be happy?
"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."
A game that was already simmering – with Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan going at it – began to boil. Devils winger Steve Bernier valiantly leapt to Brodeur's aid and got knocked flat on his back. Tortorella came to the partition separating the benches, pointed at DeBoer as he barked at him, then turned away with a smirk.
"I'm not going to answer any questions on that," Tortorella said. "Thank you."
Oh, now we're polite?
Tortorella has more important questions to answer. Why did the Rangers start so slowly? What can they do better when they fall behind? How can they stop the Devils' relentless forecheck? Can they keep their composure?
"I think the most important thing is, we just have to have the puck more," Tortorella said.
The Rangers haven't had it nearly enough in this series, and as the Philadelphia Flyers found out in the second round, that can be deadly against the Devils. You can wear down. You can get frustrated. You can make mistakes. You can take penalties while the Devils skate away. And you can lose, even if you have a guy like Lundqvist.
"He can't stop all of them," Kovalchuk said. "He's a great goalie, but we've got to keep pushing it."
Late in the game, after a Ruslan Fedotenko wrist shot spoiled Brodeur's shutout bid, Parise swiped at the puck in the New Jersey zone while Lundqvist was on the bench for an extra attacker. The puck rolled on its side almost three-quarters of the way down the ice and went into the net.
Just hammer it? Hope it goes up the ramp?
It was as if Parise had shaken the machine. To borrow a word from pinball, maybe this series is starting to tilt.