The Rangers talked a strong game Sunday afternoon, but they played another poor one last night.
“The biggest thing is to have a good start [and] get some momentum,” Dan Girardi said after the Rangers started slow and were thoroughly outplayed for the fourth straight game in dropping Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Devils, 4-1. The series is tied 2-2 with Game 5 Wednesday night at the Garden.
“We had bad starts here,” Girardi said. “Give them some credit. They’re big; they come hard.”
Bryce Salvador, Travis Zajac and Zach Parise scored for the Devils. Parise scored twice, including a late empty-netter. Martin Brodeur made 27 saves in the win.
The 40-year-old didn’t have to work especially hard as the Rangers generated only 28 total shots. The Rangers did not record their first shot until Carl Hagelin’s 38-footer 10:21 into the match.
By then, the Devils had a 1-0 lead on Salvador’s seeing-eye wrister that rolled under Henrik Lundqvist’s (26 saves) pads.
Zajac’s game-winning goal 3:49 after Salvador’s score ended any pretense of drama. Michael Del Zotto, who struggled all night before being benched for much of the final two periods, gave the puck away to Parise which created a 2-on-1. Parise feathered a cross-ice pass to Zajac, who one-timed a shot from the left faceoff circle that Lundqvist had no shot at stopping.
“It was a struggle for a number of our guys,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella said. “It was a struggle for [Del Zotto]. He hasn’t had many games like that this year. I had an extra [defenseman] dressed (Stu Bickel, who replaced the suspended Brandon Prust). We figured we’d take a little pressure off of him. He’ll bounce back.”
Parise’s power play goal 2:41 into the third increased the lead to 3-0. It was the Devils’ second man-advantage goal in 14 opportunities and Parise’s first since May 1. Parise added an empty-net goal with 1:29 remaining.
“Your best players have to be your best players,” Devils head coach Pete DeBoer said about Parise. “I knew he would respond. I knew it was a matter of time. He was playing well. He was getting opportunities.”
The Devils’ newly created top line of Parise, Zajac and Dainius Zubrus combined for three goals and two assists and were plus-three.
“I didn’t find the right mix for him as early as I probably should have,” DeBoer said of Parise and the revamped top line. “But I thought he had some really good chemistry tonight with those guys.”
The teams’ on-ice animosity finally matched their coaches’ off-ice war of words. Ryan McDonagh fought Adam Henrique 9:26 into the game, and Ryan Callahan and Ilya Kovalchuk were given matching roughing majors. Both led up to a shouting match between opposing coaches from their respective benches at 6:18 of the third following Mike Rupp’s left to the jaw of Brodeur. Rupp received a four minute minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Callahan said. “It’s a series. You play these guys every other night. You’re going to have games where it’s chippy. I think it was one of those games.”
Rupp, through a public relations official, elected not to talk to reporters. When asked about the tete-a-tete with DeBoer, Tortorella said, “I’m not going to answer any questions on that.”
The Rangers coach did said he was “very optimistic” going into Game 5 and added that his team “always find[s] a way to find a good game. I am truly confident we’ll answer it the right way.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.