NEW YORK -- Rangers fans came to Madison Square Garden to party on Wednesday. They were coming for their team's first home playoff game since 1997. And they came with a feeling that their team would find itself on home ice and put an end to its ill-timed seven-game losing streak.
The local hero -- rookie goalie Henrik Lundqvist -- was back in the crease. Rangers head coach Tom Renney quickly went back to his Swedish stopper after sitting him for Game 2.
And their superstar -- MVP candidate Jaromir Jagr -- was back in the lineup. Jagr declared himself healthy enough to play after taking a pregame twirl around the Garden ice. The home crowd roared with delight when Jagr's name wasn't announced as one of the scratches.
Surely, they figured, this was their night.
Unfortunately, somebody invited the New Jersey Devils to this Garden party. The experienced visitors from across the river responded to the hoopla with a near-perfect road game en route to a 3-0 win at a very deflated MSG.
The Devils' defensive performance was so complete, the third period looked more like a preseason game than a critical playoff tilt.
"They had good sticks all night," Renney said. "They denied passes. … They had good first pressure. They had good secondary pressure. There were not a lot of holes in their game tonight. Their commitment to detail was excellent."
In the winning locker room, the no-nonsense Devils weren't making too much of a fuss.
"I think we can play better," Devils center John Madden said.
If they can, these Devils -- who have now won 14 straight games -- will be playing well into June.
Lou Lamoriello's team stunned the revved-up home crowd 68 seconds (an ironic number on this evening) into the game. Jamie Langenbrunner deposited a perfect pass from Patrik Elias behind Lundqvist to quiet the building and give the Devils another first-period lead.
The goal came off yet another 2-on-1 break. In the Rangers' recent slide, which is looking more and more like the final scene from "Thelma and Louise," they've given up a ridiculous number of odd-man chances.
As has been the case in recent games, this defensive mistake started with Sandis Ozolinsh, who failed to knock down Brian Rafalski's clearing pass at the left point. The dangerous Elias swooped behind Ozolinsh to grab the loose puck. He slid a sweet pass to Langenbrunner, who drilled it into the open side of the net.
"We knew the first 10 minutes would be very important," Devils left winger/Jagr shadow Jay Pandolfo said. "So to get that first goal was huge. I thought it really took the crowd out of it."
The Devils added to that lead just eight minutes later. And, again, Elias and Langenbrunner took advantage of an odd-man rush. In this case, Elias banged in a rebound, giving the visitors a 2-0 lead.
To the Rangers, who haven't held a lead since the first period of their April 13 loss in Pittsburgh (15 periods ago), the Devils' two-goal lead must have seemed insurmountable. And, as it turned out, it was.
The Rangers didn't get many scoring chances throughout the game. Their best chances came on a power play late in the first period. But for the second straight game (and for the second time in the game), Petr Sykora hit the post.
Devils rookie Zach Parise completed the scoring early in the second period, deflecting a Brian Gionta shot into the net. After that, the game evolved into dump it in, dump it out. The dominance was so complete, it hardly seemed like a meaningful game. Martin Brodeur picked up another playoff shutout. It was the 21st of his brilliant career. He's just two shy of Patrick Roy's league playoff record.
Now the Devils can complete the sweep on Saturday afternoon. And while they'll say all the right things to us media folks, the Devils would love to twist the knife and break out the broom.
Off the record, Devils players will admit they relished the idea of facing the Rangers in this postseason. They noticed all the attention the Rangers received during their comeback season. And while they didn't lose sleep over it, they were a little bothered by it. After all, they'd been among the league's best teams over the past 10 years, winning three Cups since 1995.
Even now, they've won 14 straight games and local fans still talk more about the Rangers. The chance to end the Rangers' surprisingly good season has definitely motivated them.
On Saturday, they'll be back to finish the job. And after Game 3, it looks like this Garden party will soon be over.