NEW YORK – With only seconds separating the New York Rangers from a series deficit they would be hard pressed to overcome, lightning struck twice in a matter of moments.
A pair of power-play goals on the same high-sticking penalty against Washington's Joel Ward turned what seemed to be a sure loss into one of the most thrilling wins in Rangers history.
Instead of being one defeat from elimination, the East's top-seeded team needs only one more win to knock out the Capitals and advance to the conference finals for the first time since 1997. Getting that far is expected when you finish first in the regular season, but no one could have drawn it up this way.
Brad Richards scored the tying goal with 7.6 seconds remaining in regulation and Marc Staal completed the comeback when he netted the winner 1:35 into overtime during the second half of Ward's double penalty as the Rangers pulled out a 3-2 victory over the Capitals in Game 5 on Monday night.
Faced with the prospect that the Rangers could be playing their final home game of what has been a special season, the Madison Square Garden crowd replaced pure panic with total euphoria when Richards and Staal packed a huge one-two punch.
"I wasn't giving up hope until I heard the buzzer right at the very end," said forward John Mitchell, who won the key faceoff that set up the winning goal. "I had hope if there was 0.1 second left. It was awesome to know we had the opportunity with the power play."
Game 6 is Wednesday night in Washington. If the Capitals win, Game 7 would be back in New York on Saturday.
"Nobody thinks we are going to lose it easily," Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. "It's not over yet. We're going home to play at our house. We'll come back here."
The Rangers have been struggling on the power play throughout the playoffs, and they had failed on their first three chances Monday without mustering a shot. With so little time and no real confidence to fall back on, even the most optimistic supporter had to have had doubts.
"The last minute was incredible," Staal said.
That's when the Rangers somehow cured their ailing power play. New York had been 2 for 16 on the advantage in the series before Ward's penalty changed everything.
"We knew we had a power play going into overtime and we wanted to get one and be quick," Staal said. "That's what we ended up doing."
The defenseman made sure that Richards' tying goal wouldn't go to waste when he scored 1:35 into overtime.
"It's a kick in the gut when you lose because it happens so quickly, and it's pretty exciting when you win because it happens quick," New York coach John Tortorella said.
The Rangers overcame a 3-2 series deficit in the first round against Ottawa, just the second time in 18 tries they have pulled off the feat, and didn't want to tempt fate again.
With goalie Henrik Lundqvist pulled for an extra attacker, Ward took a four-minute penalty for high-sticking Carl Hagelin with 21.3 seconds left. Richards tied it, and then Staal won it with a drive that appeared to deflect off a Washington player before beating goalie Braden Holtby.
"It's tough. It's hard to swallow," Capitals forward Matt Hendricks said. "It's a tough loss. We need to regroup. They won at home. Now we need to win at home. We'll watch film on it and we'll let it go and fix our mistakes."
Ward was the first-round hero for the Capitals, scoring the winning goal in overtime of Game 7 to knock out the Boston Bruins. Now, he hopes he will have the chance to redeem himself.
"This definitely stings," he said. "It was a hard-fought battle. It's tough when you let the team down on a play like that."
But the Capitals raced to his defense, and tried to take the blame and spotlight away from him.
"It was an accident," coach Dale Hunter said. "Those are the breaks of hockey. It accidentally came up. It's just a hockey play.
"You don't overanalyze it. You just go play. We'll battle again like we did the whole series and the series before."
With the crowd still buzzing over the shocking tying goal, a din that held up through the long intermission, Mitchell won a faceoff in the Capitals' end to start the winning play. Staal corralled the puck at the right point, glided to the center of the zone, and fired the drive that set off a wild celebration on the ice and in the seats.
"We just kept trying to come at them," Staal said. "It wasn't a set play or anything off the draw. Just a good clean draw, and guys went to the net, and (Holtby) couldn't see it."
The Rangers mobbed each other at center ice as the crushed Capitals trudged toward the tunnel to their dressing room. Then, the New York players raised their sticks to the crowd as red, white and blue streamers cascaded from the rooftop.
The celebration, which culminated in fireworks as the three stars of the game were announced, seemed almost inevitable after Richards tied it. After no success with traditional 5-on-4 power plays, the Rangers made the most of their 6-on-4 edge as Lundqvist watched from the bench.
"You could tell when games are getting tighter, more important, he plays better," Lundqvist said of Richards. "I think he likes the intensity in games like that. It just shows what type of player he really is."
Michael Del Zotto took a shot that hit traffic in front to the right of Holtby. Ryan Callahan took two or three hard whacks at the loose puck, but couldn't get it forward. Richards jammed his stick into the maze of legs and poked the puck past Holtby just before he was able to cover it with his glove.
John Carlson, who had given the Capitals a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal in the third period, couldn't keep the puck out, either, after he got in behind Holtby as a last line of defense.
"You have to believe you can do it," Lundqvist said of the comeback. "It was tough for us to get in front and create real good scoring chances, but we were shooting a lot and had a lot of energy. We definitely deserved this win. We worked so hard."
New York defenseman Anton Stralman staked the Rangers to a 1-0 lead during a dominant first period for New York, but Brooks Laich answered for the Capitals in the second.
Carlson then snapped the 1-1 tie 4:20 into the third with the goal that appeared to put the seventh-seeded Capitals on the brink of knocking out the top-seeded Rangers.
It would have marked the second straight game that Washington used a man-advantage goal from a defenseman to earn a victory, but instead the Rangers won their second of the series in overtime.
The Capitals, 0-5 in the playoffs when their opponent scores first, were fortunate to even be in position to win as they were outshot 38-18 overall by the Rangers.
"We have to put it behind us," Holtby said. "It's a tough loss, obviously. It's the way hockey goes sometimes."
Washington woke up a bit in the second period and got even, despite recording only six shots on Lundqvist. However, that was two more than the Capitals generated in the first.
The Rangers held a 26-10 edge in shots in the first 40 minutes, but had only a 1-1 tie to show for it heading into the tense third period.
The Capitals tied it in the second after gaining control of the puck following a faceoff in the Rangers' end. Ovechkin, who heard even more boos than usual from the Garden crowd, sent a pass from the side boards to the right of Lundqvist that bounced off Rangers forward Brian Boyle. The puck came right to Laich in the slot for a hard drive that beat Lundqvist inside the right post to make it 1-1 at 8:15.
Notes: Stralman scored his first two career NHL playoff goals — both on the power play — in the Rangers' first-round series win over Ottawa. ... Washington is 6-1 in the playoffs when it scores first. ... The Capitals are 3 for 16 on the power play in the series. ... The Rangers won Game 3 in triple overtime 2-1.