The suddenly-struggling Washington Capitals will try to halt a two-game losing streak in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals when they host the New York Rangers in Friday's Game 5 at Verizon Center.
The third-seeded Capitals closed the regular season with an 11-1-1 record in April en route to winning their fifth Southeast Division title in six years. Washington also jumped out to a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series before suffering consecutive losses in Games 3 and 4 in New York City.
After taking a 4-3 regulation decision in Game 3, the sixth-seeded Rangers won Wednesday's meeting by the same score to tie the series. Derek Stepan's goal just over six minutes into the third period proved to be the difference as New York held on for the victory at Madison Square Garden.
Stepan's one-timer from the low left circle doubled New York's lead at 6:02, but the Caps answered just under 90 seconds later when Karl Alzner flipped a shot from the left point that sailed over the stick-side shoulder of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to make it 4-3 at the 7:31 mark.
Washington would get no closer, however, as Lundqvist stood tall between the pipes the rest of the way to secure the victory. Lundqvist backstopped the victory with 27 saves, including 14 in the final frame to help the Rangers hang on down the stretch.
"I thought again we played a great game," Lundqvist said. "They just kept coming back, but we did so many good things. You can see the confidence; we made a lot of good plays and I thought we deserved this one."
Carl Hagelin registered a goal and two assists, while Dan Girardi and Brad Richards each scored once for the Rangers.
Mathieu Perreault posted a goal and an assist in the setback, with Troy Brouwer joining Alzner as the other goal-scorer for Washington. Braden Holtby made 30 saves in the loss.
"We knew it was going to be a tough series," Holtby said. "They played really well these last two games and there is some stuff we need to work on. It's a three-game series now. We still have home-ice advantage."
The Caps hope superstar winger Alex Ovechkin can get his game on track in tonight's battle in D.C. Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 32 goals during the regular season, has a goal and an assist in this series and he hasn't reached the scoresheet since Game 2.
Even worse, Ovechkin registered a total of 12 shots over the first two games of the series, but has been credited with only three combined attempts on net in Games 3 and 4.
The 27-year-old Russian has 31 goals and 30 assists in 55 career playoff games and was named Friday as one of three finalists for this season's Hart Trophy. He is already a two-time winner of the NHL's most valuable player award.
The Capitals are 4-5 all-time in series where they hold a 2-0 lead, but three of those nine instances took place when the Patrick Division semifinals were a best-of-five series. The last time Washington was up 2-0 and lost a best-of- seven series was in 2009, when it dropped a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals battle against Pittsburgh.
The Rangers hope to have defenseman Marc Staal back tonight after he was a late scratch from the team's lineup in Game 4. Staal, who returned from a 29- game absence due to a serious eye injury in Game 3, participated in the team's optional morning skate on Wednesday, but did not play later that night. No reason was given for Staal's absence and his status for Game 5 is unclear.
Steve Eminger filled in for Staal on Wednesday and will likely play tonight if Staal is unavailable.
New York also lost forward Darroll Powe to an upper-body injury on Wednesday and he is expected to miss Game 5.
Washington forward Martin Erat suffered an injury late in the first period of Game 4 and he did not return. Erat hurt his arm after Ovechkin got a piece of him while trying to lay a big check on Stepan. Erat is expected to miss Game 5.
The Capitals were 15-8-1 as the host during the regular season, while New York, which will host Game 6 on Sunday, was 10-12-2 as the guest.
These two clubs are familiar foes in the postseason of late, as this is the fourth time in the past five years they have met. The Capitals took the first two matchups, but the Rangers won a seven-game series in the conference semifinals last year.
Washington has won four of the seven all-time playoff series between these two clubs, but the Rangers took two of three from the Capitals in the regular season.