NEWARK, N.J. -- As steady Swede Henrik Lundqvist surrendered his veneer of invincibility, so went the Rangers' composure in a vicious 4-1 loss Monday night to the Devils that knotted the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.
Already down 3-0 in a lopsided match that the Devils dominated right from the opening faceoff, the Rangers flailed desperately to gain some traction by any means necessary.
Juggling lines yielded nothing from the team's top producers, leaving ex-Devil Mike Rupp to stir things up in a bitter match during which tensions escalated as the game progressed.
Rupp rocked Devils defenseman Peter Harrold with a jarring hit behind the net at 6:18 into the third period -- one that earned him a roughing penalty -- but didn't stop there. He moved on to former teammate Martin Brodeur, giving him a swift jab to the chest that earned him a 10-minute misconduct and ignited a scrum that managed to boil over onto the benches.
While their players tussled on the ice -- a trademark nastiness between the two clubs that was lacking in the first three games -- Devils coach Peter DeBoer and Rangers coach John Tortorella screamed at each other from the benches.
It was rare, not because Tortorella is the picture of serenity -- he had launched a fiery tirade toward the Devils one day earlier -- but because it signified an uncharacteristic lack of restraint from a disciplined Rangers squad that has built its success with its mind-numbing consistency.
The Devils were delighted.
"That's what we're trying to hopefully see out of them," said defenseman Bryce Salvador, who finished with a goal and an assist, "is a lack of composure."
That was the same strategy the Devils used to upset the Flyers, dispatching them in a mere five games during the semifinals. Now that they have found a way to rattle the resilient Rangers, the Devils plan to keep it up.
"Hopefully they're going to start taking penalties and start taking some cheap shots, and hopefully they stop thinking about playing hockey and more about trying to run somebody through the boards or try to hit Marty, stuff like that," Salvador said. "I think at this time of the year, there's going to be a lot of emotions. Everyone wants to win but what you're going to see now these last three games here is just what team is going to be the most composed and who is going to stay out of the penalty box."
The Rangers' composure was shaken from the beginning of the game (sound familiar?) with yet another lackluster start that set them back on their heels.
This time goaltender Lundqvist wasn't there as their first-period life preserver, however, as he surrendered two goals in the first 11:59.
"He's kept us in it early when we haven't been ready at the start, and we [have been] able to regroup and get back in," alternate captain Marc Staal said. "Tonight they hurt us with two [goals], and I thought we were coming back in the game and playing well, but too little, too late."
Monday was a turning point for both teams.
Lundqvist turned out to be human, after all, while the steely Rangers seemed to unravel just a bit. Meanwhile, the Devils found a way to best their bitter rivals without letting the frustration obscure their effort.
"I think throughout a seven-game series, both teams are bound to get frustrated at different things," said Devils captain Zach Parise, who finished with a tremendous three-point effort. "We've done a good job all playoffs of playing whistle to whistle and skating away from the scrums and things like that. Whether they were frustrated or not, I don't know. But we did a good job of staying out of it."
On Monday night, the Rangers couldn't say the same.