New Jersey Devils' Stephen Gionta (11) celebrates after scoring a goal on New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, center right, of Sweden, during the first period of Game 5 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference final playoff series, Wednesday, May 23, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
NEW YORK, N.Y. - The New York Rangers played their best game of the post-season against the New Jersey Devils. Unfortunately, it was a night Henrik Lundqvist played his worst
Call it bad timing. Bad bounces. Bad luck. Whatever.
The bottom line is the regular season's best team in the Eastern Conference is on the brink of elimination in the conference finals.
Lundqvist gave up a post-season-high four goals on only 16 shots and the Devils rode a late goal by fourth-line centre Ryan Carter to a 5-3 victory that put them within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 2003.
The Rangers' task is simple. Win the next two games, starting Friday night on the road at the Prudential Center, or watch their rivals face the Los Angeles Kings for the Cup next week.
Lundqvist felt he didn't play a bad game. Luck, though, clearly wasn't on his side.
And that hurt, especially after his teammates rallied from a 3-0 deficit and tied the game early in the third on a goal by Marian Gaborik.
"You want to come up with the saves when the team needs you," said Lundqvist, who has given up seven goals in the past two games. "We did so many good things, and as a goalie, you appreciate how hard the guys worked to get back in the game. You just wish it didn't end the way it did. We did so many good things. I thought we had this one.
"Again, we came up a little short."
Lundqvist never had a chance on the winner by Carter. Defencemen Michael Del Zotto and Dan Girardi both went beyond the goal line to play Stephen Gionta and he was able to find Carter alone in front with 4:24 to play to break a 3-3 tie.
Zach Parise added an empty-net goal to ice the game with 32 seconds left.
Gionta had put New Jersey ahead 1-0 on a rebound at 2:43 and Patrik Elias extended the margin less than two minutes later on a puck that deflected into the net. Travis Zajac scored the weakest goal of the run on a blast from 40 feet later in the first.
When asked if he was questioning himself after that, Lundqvist said no.
"My luck maybe," he said. "I was right there for the first shot, especially on the second one, but I was little slow to react to it, even though I was in good position. After that, it was a just all of us. We did so many good things. It's a tough-and-frustrating end to the game.
"I didn't expect that to happen."
The Rangers' comeback, though, was also unexpected. Brandon Prust scored on a break with less than five minutes to go in the first. Ryan Callahan narrowed the gap to 3-2 in the opening minute of the second on a shot that went off his leg, and he nearly tied the game minutes later on a power play, when his shot banged off the inside of the goalpost, and somehow didn't go in.
Gaborik tied the game in the opening minute of the third on a giveaway by Martin Brodeur, who made 25 saves. Rangers coach John Tortorella said the Devils picked up their game after the Rangers tied the score, but his team helped.
"I thought we did a really good job of making plays and controlling some of the play tonight, and then I just felt we started batting around a little bit and allowed them to gain some forechecking," he said. "I didn't think we were in real trouble. But they score a goal. They make a big play."
Which is true. Even the Devils thought that the Rangers played well enough to win Game 5.
"We," Elias said, "stole this one."
Either way, the Rangers now face elimination—again. They had to win the final two games in the opening round against Ottawa and then a Game 7 against Washington.
"It's 3-2," Rangers centre Brian Boyle said. "We have to win two. That's the bottom line."
It won't be easy.