The rope-a-dope Rangers did it again.
They were clearly the second best team on the ice Saturday in the Prudential Center, despite the encouragement some players took from playing a better second period after John Tortorella called a crucial timeout to urge his team to speed things up.
They have been the second best team for a good chunk of the 180 minutes played so far in this Eastern Conference final. They have taken some of the best shots the Devils could serve up. Saturday, that best included a pair of second-period breakaways by Ilya Kovalchuk and a few other odd-man rushes that would have had Tortorella skating his team to pieces today if it were a regular season practice.
But the Rangers have the best goaltender in this series, and they have their style: The rope-a-dope. Take the other team's best and biggest shots, and either block them or watch Henrik Lundqvist work his magic.
And then turn it around with one small play here or there.
"This season was kind of a dress rehearsal for this time of year," Ryan Callahan said. "We prepared ourselves all year for these sorts of situations."
The Rangers have now played 17 playoff games. Seven of them have been tied either 0-0 or 1-1 after two periods. They've won six of those. It's the sort of statistic that doesn't register much with the players or Tortorella, but shows that the way they play is designed to keep opponents at bay until they slip.
The Devils' slip-up Saturday came just a few short minutes into the third, as it did in Game 1. Two icings by the Devils' top line, followed by a penalty taken with the Rangers controlling some zone time, followed by Dan Girardi's power-play goal.
Just that simple, and somehow 1-0 felt like 4-0. When Chris Kreider's tip made it 2-0 just 1:57 later, Game 3 was over. The Rangers don't let leads like that get away.
The way they play -- unchanging, determined to block, shove or smother every time the Devils get set up in their zone -- is grueling. Girardi and Ryan McDonagh looked a little beat in the first 40 minutes; Callahan hasn't been his usual force on offense, even though he still hits and blocks shots with regularity. Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik have been zigging when everyone else is zagging at times.
But they have Lundqvist to make pick-us-up saves and they have their five-man system that can dull even the sharpest offense.
"We just stay with our structure and believe in it like we did today," McDonagh said, "and it's tough to stop us."
The Rangers seem incapable of building up a head of steam, so the result of tomorrow's Game 4 might not be the same as Saturday's. The Rangers are better with their backs against the wall, when they have to collapse and defend and claw their way just to get a puck out of their own zone.
But they also have a confidence that may seem more maddening to opponents than the crazy way the Rangers win these tense games.
"We know who we are," Tortorella said. "It's no secret."
No, there is no secret to this Rangers club that's now two wins from a Stanley Cup final. They will take everything the Devils have and try to extinguish it in the most arduous way possible, then come out confidently smiling afterward.
The rope-a-dope worked again.