They started slow and finished ugly. There wasn't much good in between either for the Rangers, who looked bad losing Game 4 Monday night and their lead in this series.
The awful first period was their downfall, yet again. The Rangers have been able to impose their will on a great number of games this season and postseason, but this was the fourth time out of four Eastern Conference finals games in which the Devils grabbed a game by the throat.
They let go twice before because of Henrik Lundqvist. Monday night, Bryce Salvador's soft shot sailed through a mess of legs and between Lundqvist's pads 8:10 into a first period that was all Devils, and a 1-0 lead seemed far bigger.
"I don't know why," Marc Staal said of his team's sluggishness out of the gate. "It's their building, they're down a game, so you know they're coming out hard. We need to be more prepared to be quicker right from the start."
Lundqvist had no chance on Salvador's goal, nor on Travis Zajac's conversion of a two-on-one just 3:49 later. The score and the 12-3 Devils shot advantage 15 minutes in made things look as bad as possible for the Rangers, but this was not too far off from the brutally slow, out-of-sync start the Rangers had in Game 2, or at times in Game 3.
They have Lundqvist, who can make a 0-0 tie seem like a two-goal lead with his focus and control. But once the Devils dented his shell Monday night, they played faster and stronger, while the Rangers receded, stumbling over simple plays.
"It looked for a bit like more of the same from the other night," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "But the first one was big. I thought we played a little looser from then on."
And the Rangers grew tighter and then, finally, they blew. Mike Rupp got called for a borderline hit on Devils defenseman Peter Harrold, then took a swipe at Martin Brodeur; Ryan Callahan and Ilya Kovalchuk had earlier exchanged unpleasantries, with Callahan delivering a few punches to a seated Kovalchuk. The Devils winger responded with a spear to the gut.
Then there was the shouting match between the coaches. Both downplayed it after the game, and John Tortorella was downright philosophical about his team following their worst loss of the playoffs.
"We have to be able to hold onto pucks," he said. "We had the yips with it. We just gave it back to them . . . It was a struggle with a number of guys."
But the Rangers coach is confident his team will respond Wednesday in Game 5. Who's to doubt him? Even though the Rangers had some discipline breakdowns late to go with their structural breakdowns early, they have been able to easily discard the ugly ones and return to their usual selves the next game.
The one aspect they have to change is how they come out from the opening faceoff. The Rangers are without a first-period goal in the four games so far, and have just seven in 18 playoff games, a dismal total no matter what style of game you play; they've allowed only nine first-period goals this postseason, which would be a solidly low number without their own inability to jump out early.
The Rangers are masters at smothering defense and they have a goaltender who can suck the life out of the best opponent.
But now, with yet another series knotted 2-2, the Rangers have to find a way to take charge rather than absorb blows. Their playoff lives may depend on it.