In the end, said Rangers coach John Tortorella, "it was just a nothing play, and it turned into something pretty big."
Big enough to leave the Rangers within a game of being eliminated from the postseason.
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The Rangers had coughed up a three-goal lead in the third period of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last night, but were hanging in midway through a grueling second overtime at Madison Square Garden.
Until a mixup cost them.
When a loose puck, seemingly harmless, drifted into the left circle, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist came out to play it. But before he could fall on it Marian Gaborik poked it right to Jason Chimera, who was behind Lundqvist, for the easy goal at 12:36, giving the Capitals a 4-3 victory and commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 on Saturday back in Washington where the Rangers lost the first two games.
"I go out and try to freeze the puck and Gabby sees me," said Lundqvist, who finished with 49 saves. "There was a miscommunication . . . it all happened pretty fast and unfortunately, when he played the puck, it hit their guy."
That the Rangers lived to play the second overtime was the direct consequence of Lundqvist's glove save on Alexander Ovechkin, who broke in on him all alone at 8:59 of the first overtime.
But the game should never have even lasted that long. The collapse was swift. The Capitals scored three times in the first 12:07 of the third.
"I'm a little shocked," said Brandon Dubinsky, "especially because the way we've played in the third period all year long. We never lost a game going into the third period with a lead. This one hurts."
The momentum swing began with Alexander Semin's goal at 2:47. Semin had scored after Lundqvist gloved his partially blocked shot on the goal line, but Semin jammed it in. They struck again with 16:16 left as Marcus Johansson was left alone on the doorstep and easily beat Lundqvist to trim the lead to 3-2.
"We stopped making plays as it went on," said Tortorella. "We struggled a bit, I thought we gathered ourselves, we still had chances, then we get beat by a goal that, Hank's ready to tie it up and Gabby poke checks it."
Before the disastrous third period, two Rangers goals in seven seconds of the second period gave them the 3-0 lead.
Trailing 2-1 in the series but leading 1-0 midway through the second period at the raucous Garden, Ruslan Fedotenko made two superb backhand passes, first to Gaborik at the right post, and then to Dubinsky from behind the net, and each beat Washington goalie Michal Neuwirth to stun the Capitals.
But with a 3-0 lead, the largest that either team had in the four low-scoring games, the Rangers could not hold on. The Capitals scored three straight, the last one on Marcus Johansson's deflection of John Carlson's one-timer past Lundqvist's glove just as a power play ended with Sean Avery leaving the penalty box at 12:07.
The Rangers were 28-0-0 when leading after two periods this season. The fever pitch will continue at the Verizon Center with the Rangers one loss from going home.
"Listen, when we needed to win games, we've won games," said Dubinsky. "We're capable of finding a way to get it done. We realized before the series that we had to win one game in that building. We have to use this as a lesson that 40 minutes isn't good enough."