By IRA PODELL
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - The New Jersey Devils never could have imagined they would have a three-goal lead on the New York Rangers less than 10 minutes into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at hostile Madison Square Garden.
Their shock was even greater when that advantage was gone, and they were suddenly locked in a tie game in the opening minute of the third period.
In the end, it all worked out for the Devils, who got another surprising goal from fourth-line forward Ryan Carter in the closing minutes and escaped with a win that put New Jersey on the brink of a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.
Carter's third goal of the playoffs with 4:24 remaining was the difference in the Devils' 5-3 victory over New York on Wednesday night. The Devils have a 3-2 edge in the series, but if the top-seeded Rangers can stay alive on Friday night in New Jersey, Game 7 would be back in Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
"It's a good feeling," goalie Martin Brodeur said of the Devils' status. "We worked really hard to get in that position. (There's been) a lot of unsung heroes and guys producing at different times. Players are playing well. We've just got to keep going.
"Nothing is done yet."
If the Rangers fall short, their best season in years will come to a crashing end and the Devils will move on to face the Western champion Los Angeles Kings. New York hasn't been to the finals since 1994, when the Rangers knocked out New Jersey in the semis and then beat Vancouver for the title.
The Devils are one win away from playing for the Cup one season after their run of 13 straight postseason appearances was snapped. New Jersey went to the finals four times between 1995 and 2003 and won three championships.
"It's a great position to be in," Devils forward Patrik Elias said. "Hopefully, we can play a better game at home. Hopefully, we'll be the team that dictates the energy and the pace out there."
When Travis Zajac scored 9:49 in to make it 3-0, the Devils seemed ready to cruise to victory. But the Rangers roared back and appeared to have every bit of the momentum.
Then the game, and perhaps the entire series, changed in the blink of an eye when Carter put the Devils in front to stay. Zach Parise added an empty-net goal to make sure the Rangers had no chance for another comeback.
Carter had only four goals and four assists in 72 regular-season games with Florida and New Jersey. He has two goals in the East finals.
"They've been great the whole playoffs," Elias said of the fourth line. "It's not always the top guys who win you hockey games."
Stephen Gionta and Elias scored within the first 4:13 before Zajac made it 3-0. Then the Rangers woke up.
Brandon Prust brought New York within 3-1 before the first period was over, and Ryan Callahan made it a one-goal game in the first minute of the second. The Garden really rocked when Marian Gaborik tied it at 3 just 17 seconds into the third.
But the comeback was for naught.
"We probably played our best game of the series," Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
Once Gaborik tied it with an unassisted goal that ricocheted in off Brodeur's skate, it appeared the Rangers would ride the comeback all the way to one of the most stirring wins in team history _ one that would rival victories over New Jersey in the classic 1994 East finals when the Rangers erased a 3-2 series hole behind Mark Messier's guarantee.
Carter made sure it wouldn't happen.
"You have to (keep it together) this time of year," Gionta said. "You have to have a short memory. Fortunately we did and came out with the victory."
New Jersey was outshot 28-17 overall and had only six shots in the third period, but two went in.
Brodeur, the backbone of every New Jersey title, kept his focus throughout the third when he was loudly taunted with chants of "Mar-ty, Mar-ty" after New York got even.
"It was a mistake," Brodeur said of Gaborik's goal. "I'm pretty happy that the boys bounced back and made this a win for us. It would have been tough and people would have blamed that mishandle."
The Rangers were ultimately done in by another terrible start. They had been on a pattern of win-one, lose-one, but now they are on the verge of elimination with their second two-game losing streak in a series this year.