The Eastern Conference Finals between the rival New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils finally got ugly - real ugly.
Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur was sucker punched in the third period by former teammate Mike Rupp. Coaches Peter DeBoer of New Jersey and John Tortorella of New York screamed at each other after the incident. And the Rangers blew their cool, as the Devils rode two goals and an assist by Zach Parise to a 4-1 victory on Monday night that evened the series, 2-2.
"Throughout a seven-game series," Parise said, "both teams are going to get frustrated with things."
Well, Monday was New York's turn. And only time will tell if it spills over to Game 5 Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. As for Game 4, though, the story was the hit on Brodeur, who made 28 saves en route to his 10th win of the postseason.
After all, the punch came out of nowhere and almost set off a battle on the ice before the coaches got into it on the benches.
"You don't like to see that," DeBoer said of the hit on his goaltender. "He's a key guy for us. Two teams battling it out. He's a big boy. He can take care of himself."
Brodeur was more surprised by the incident than anything else.
"I didn't expect anything," the 40-year-old said. "I never got punched like that in my career. First time. It kind of surprised me more than anything, but now I know I can take a punch."
Tortorella refused to say anything about his shouting match with DeBoer, with whom he has argued several times this season, including Sunday when he complained about the Devils using illegal picks and embellishing penalties.
"This isn't about John and I," DeBoer said. "This is about the guys on the ice. So, I don't have anything to say about that."
This game - and its result - seemed almost anticlimactic after the shenanigans.
Bryce Salvador and Travis Zajac beat Henrik Lundqvist less than four minutes apart in the first to give the Devils their first two-goal lead in a series where the intensity and the emotions are picking up to the point where they now compare to the classic 1994 Eastern Conference Finals between these two rivals.
In that series, there were suspensions on both sides, three double-overtime games, a Game 6 "Guarantee" by New York captain Mark Messier, and unparalleled drama.
Well, this one is getting there.
On Monday, Brodeur, the only remaining player on either side from that 1994 series, even notched an assist in the third, on Parise's empty netter, capping a game in which the Devils maintained their composure and bounced back from a 3-0 shutout in Game 3, while the Rangers took several uncharacteristic penalties and seemed rattled from the start.
And the chippiness increased with each period. New York's Marc Staal whacked Patrik Elias in the back of the knee with his stick in the second. Ryan Callahan, the Rangers captain, and New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk tussled and then jawed at each other from the respective penalty boxes.
"There are going to be situations out there where we get into each other's faces," Callahan said. "That's playoff hockey."
But the Rupp incident might have been a little over the top, even for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
A former Devil who scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for New Jersey in 2003 vs. Anaheim, Rupp jabbed Brodeur in his crease in the third after a stoppage in play. That almost set off a free-for-all among the players on the ice, especially after Brodeur reacted like he had been hit by a roundhouse left.
As Brodeur walked through the locker room, he was asked if Rupp was his friend.
"That's what I thought," he said before heading to the podium for a postgame news conference. Meanwhile, Rupp was not available for comment.
The punch came about four minutes after Parise scored on a power play to give New Jersey a 3-0 lead and for all practical purposes, ended the game. Ruslan Fedotenko ruined Brodeur's bid for his 25th career playoff shutout with just over five minutes to play.
The Rangers pulled Lundqvist, who had shut out the Devils in Games 1 and 3, with less than three minutes to play, and Brodeur made two outstanding saves to keep it a two-goal game.
Parise - two days after he did not speak to reporters after a disappointing effort in Game 3 - finally iced it with his second of the game and sixth of the playoffs. It was a clearing pass that found its way into the net. Brodeur notched the assist on that play. It was his fourth point of the playoffs.
But this game - which did not include New York's Brendan Prust, who was suspended for elbowing Anton Volchenkov in Game 3 - was decided early because the Devils finally found ways to beat Lundqvist.
New Jersey dominated much of the play in Game 3, and the first period of Game 4 was even worse for the Rangers. They looked slow, were outhustled on nearly every shift, and they didn't get a shot on goal until roughly halfway through.
By then, New Jersey already had a 1-0 lead, on a goal by Salvador, and was cruising.
Salvador's see-eying shot through a half-dozen players from the left point sneaked by the Rangers' netminder for New Jersey's first goal since the third period of Game 2. New Jersey's Jacob Josefson, playing for the first time since breaking his left wrist on April 3, failed to deflect the shot on the way in, and New York's Anton Stralman seemed to screen Lundqvist, who seemingly never saw the wristshot.
Zajac's goal gave the Devils a 2-0 edge at 11:59, and the rejuvenated Parise had a big hand in it.
New Jersey's Dainius Zubrus sent the puck along the boards and New York's Michael Del Zotto made two mistakes. He didn't flag down the puck and then, he allowed Parise to skate past him, setting up a 2-on-1 break. Parise lifted a pass over the stick of a prone Dan Girardi, and Zajac one-timed the pass into the upper portion of the net before Lundqvist could react.
Parise extended the lead to 3-0 early in the third, just four seconds after New York's Derek Stepan was sent off for high sticking. Kovalchuk took a shot from the point that Lundqvist could not control and Parise whacked the rebound into the net.
NOTES: Veteran Petr Sykora, who had played in every game for the Devils this season and won the 2000 Stanley Cup with New Jersey, sat, as Josefson returned to the lineup. ... With Prust forced to miss the game, the Rangers dressed seven defenseman, including Stu Bickel who returned to the lineup after sitting for Game 3. ... Rangers rookie forward Chris Kreider had his three-game, goal-scoring streak snapped. ... The Devils' win was played on the 18-year anniversary of New Jersey's 3-1 victory over the Rangers in the aforementioned 1994 series. That was also a Game 4, and that also tied that series, 2-2. New York went on to win in seven games. There were several former Devils from that series in attendance, including Jim Dowd, Bruce Driver and Slava Fetisov.