NEW YORK — New Jersey Devils coach Lindy Ruff blamed a parade of penalties for breaking his team’s early momentum in Game 6, as the New York Rangers pushed their Eastern Conference first-round series to a seventh game after a 5-2 win on Saturday night.
“I thought the penalties took our best players away from the game. They had to spend too much time on the bench. That hurt us,” said Ruff, who watched the Rangers knot up the series at three games apiece.
The Devils’ discipline was one reason they entered Game 6 with a chance to eliminate the Rangers. In the first three games of the series, they handed New York 15 power-play opportunities; in the next two games, the Rangers had only five power plays combined.
But in Game 6, the Devils reverted to taking too many penalties and too many of them in the offensive zone. New Jersey was whistled for four minor penalties in the first 23:20 of Game 6.
“The penalties hurt us. Some of the calls I didn’t like, but you have to get through them,” Ruff said.
Those calls led to a Rangers power-play goal from Chris Kreider that tied the score 1-1 in the first period, giving New York its first goal with the man advantage since Game 2.
But more importantly, those penalties kept the Devils busy on special teams rather than building on the 5-on-5 play that saw them control the early part of the first period at Madison Square Garden.
“I think the first period we started really well. They didn’t have much at all,” Devils captain Nico Hischier said. “If you take penalties, that’s how you’re going to help them get into the game.”
The Rangers played desperate hockey and earned the win. Coach Gerard Gallant said the talk before the game was about “getting hungry” in the offensive zone. He made a series of changes to his lineup, including moving Vladimir Tarasenko up to play with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider, and most paid off.
“They battled hard. They competed hard. They got to the blue paint and scored some goals,” Gallant said.
The Devils got on the board first at 11:49 of the opening period as their fourth line generated a goal. Defenseman Kevin Bahl blasted a shot that Igor Shesterkin (34 saves) stopped, but forward Curtis Lazar was there to send home the rebound for his first of the playoffs.
The Rangers struck back at 19:35 of the first period, scoring on the power play for the first time since Game 2. Zibanejad’s shot deflected off forward Kreider and into the net. It was Kreider’s sixth goal of the playoffs and his fifth on the power play.
“They got puck luck on that goal,” Ruff said. “You deal with it and move on.”
Zibanejad finally connected for a goal of his own in the second period to break the 1-1 tie. As the Rangers forechecked in the Devils’ zone, New Jersey left Zibanejad alone in the slot and Kreider found him with a pass. He blasted a shot past Devils goalie Akira Schmid at 10:10 to give the Rangers their first lead since Game 2.
Tarasenko made it 3-1 at 18:25 of third period, as Schmid was beaten from the slot again. The onslaught continued for the Rangers in the third period, as the Devils could never get to their game. Barclay Goodrow scored his first of the series after the puck bounced off Schmid’s pad.
Schmid was pulled after Braden Schneider scored from the blue line to make it 5-1. Dawson Mercer of the Devils made it 5-2 with a late power-play goal.
Ruff said after the game that he pulled Schmid to “buy some time” for his players rather than use a timeout. But he didn’t definitively say whether Schmid would start Game 7, as Games 1 and 2 starter Vitek Vanecek — the Devils’ primary goaltender in the regular season — finished off Game 6.
Schmid was asked if he had done enough in the Devils’ three straight wins before Game 6 to earn the start in Game 7.
“It’s a tough question. Obviously, you try to prove yourself every day,” he said. “I mean, both of us I guess deserve the spot. And [third goaltender] Mackenzie [Blackwood] too. So we’ll see.”
Game 7 is Monday night at Prudential Center. For the Rangers, it’s another chance to rally from a 3-2 deficit to win a series, which is what they did in the first two rounds of the 2022 Eastern Conference playoffs. Gallant said his players learned from those comeback wins.
“They got some character and pride, and they didn’t like the way the last three games went,” Gallant said. “Obviously, we got outplayed. So tonight was a chance to redeem ourselves a little bit.”
For the Devils, it’s another chance to put their archrivals away after whiffing on one in Game 6.
“It definitely sucks right now, but I think effort was there,” Hischier said. “I don’t think it was a bad game at all. So we’ve got to take the good things out of here and see these guys in Newark.”