NEW YORK -- In the moment after New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur bobbled a routine dump-in and the puck eventually ended up behind him in the Devils' net, tying Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at 3-all, was there anyone in the world who didn't think this would end with a New York Rangers victory?
Certainly the sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd, whose response to the goal just 17 seconds into the third period sent the decibel level into the stratosphere, believed the final result was inevitable.
The Rangers, who at one point trailed 3-0 midway through the first period, might have believed they would win, as well.
But somewhere in that frenzy of belief was enough disbelief among the New Jersey Devils to deny what appeared to be the inevitable.
After watching their lead turn to dust, the Devils refused to let that blown lead become the moment in the series when everything changed.
Instead, they found a way to write a much different ending than the moment suggested.
Ilya Kovalchuk, relatively quiet the past couple of games and not much of a factor in Game 5, was the first one in on the forecheck, neutralizing Michael Del Zotto. That allowed Stephen Gionta, part of the Devils' miracle fourth line that has been so crucial to the team's postseason success, to find linemate Ryan Carter, who scored the winner with 4:24 left in regulation.
"It was an adventure. Kind of a tale of two or three games out there," coach Pete DeBoer said.
The Devils now own a 3-2 series lead, having won two in Madison Square Garden, and can advance to their first Stanley Cup finals since 2003 with a win at home Friday evening.
"It wasn't the prettiest. I think it was probably the longest stretch maybe all playoffs that we haven't been sharp. We didn't forecheck properly. Again, I think they played well, they had a lot to do with it, too," said captain Zach Parise, who iced the win with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
"It wasn't our best game, and we snuck out of here with a win, so that's all that matters."
With the Devils leading 3-2 heading into the third period, Parise said, the team's mentality was, "Hey, we're on the road and leading 1-0; that's a good thing."
That didn't last long.
"Then you go back and tell yourself, [it's a] zero-zero game and you can't do anything about who scored the first three, who scored the next three," Parise said. "We just kept moving forward. Our mentality was zero-zero game, let's try and get the first one."
The challenge for the Rangers will be in not letting the shocking conclusion to Game 5 become the moment that sucked the life out of their playoff dreams.
Whatever moral victories there might have been in playing their best offensive game of the series, whatever good feelings might have been generated by roaring back to dominate the Devils for much of the game after falling behind 3-0 by the 9:49 mark of the first period must be tempered by the fact they couldn't parlay that into the kind of win that might have sucked the life out of the Devils.
"I didn't think we were in real trouble," coach John Tortorella said. "But they score a goal. They made a big play; we didn't."
He thought his team played perhaps its best game of the series, and he's right.
He got a big league performance from captain Ryan Callahan, who scored the Rangers' second goal just 32 seconds into the second period and was a force on both sides of the puck all night.
From the moment the Devils registered their third goal of the game on just their fifth shot, the Rangers dominated. They out-worked, out-hit and out-chanced the Devils.
And in the end, it wasn't enough. Now we'll find out whether it will prove too much for them to overcome.
"It's tough and a frustrating end to the game. I just didn't expect that to happen," said netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who had a rare off night, allowing four goals on just 16 shots.
"We have confidence as a group. We don't need to say, 'Oh, we did some good things, it's a moral victory,' to kind of give ourselves confidence," added forward Brian Boyle.
"We know that, we know we can do some things with the puck, we know we can forecheck and create offense that way."
If there was a sense of an opportunity squandered in the Rangers' room by wasting the comeback, there was an equal sense of relief in the Devils' room at having avoided something potentially debilitating by playing poorly for a long stretch and still earning a victory.
"Sometimes you have to do that in the playoffs, and those are big games when you get those. They can give you breathing room and make you feel still pretty good, but we know we've got nothing going on," said veteran Patrik Elias, who scored the Devils' second goal when an Adam Henrique shot bounced off him and then off Rangers forward Artem Anisimov's skate and into the goal.
"We're in a good position, better position than they are right now obviously, but that's it. We've got to be better next game; that's the bottom line."
After the game, Brodeur, who has been the goaltender of record for every meaningful New Jersey playoff moment in the franchise's history, was asked about the classic Eastern Conference final between the Devils and Rangers in 1994.
In that series, the Rangers trailed 3-2 heading into New Jersey for Game 6 and won after Rangers captain Mark Messier guaranteed victory. The Rangers won that game and Game 7 en route to their first Stanley Cup win since 1940.
Ancient history? Perhaps.
Yet Brodeur acknowledged that games like Wednesday's and series like this one are part of the fabric of these teams' shared history.
"This situation that we're in, for the Rangers and for the Devils, and for the players that are involved, you create history," Brodeur said.
"Whatever is going to happen in the next few days is what our rivalry is going to be all about, and for our fans, it's going to be something great. You know, it's fun to be part of this. I was enjoying myself a lot today, even though they came back and almost beat us; it was a fun game to be part of. Maybe I'm at a different stage of my career that I'm really taking all in what's happening, and it's a lot of fun."