The lead seemed insurmountable, and the Rangers were looking down the barrel of losing control of their playoff spot.
But in a jaw-dropping display of resiliency tonight, the Blueshirts crafted their most inspirational rally of a season that was on the brink.
Down 3-0 to Vezina Trophy favorite Tim Thomas and the Bruins midway through the second period at a restless Madison Square Garden, the oldest player on the young squad, Vinny Prospal, scored at 11:34 to trim the lead to two.
“When Vinny scored, I think everybody got the feeling, “maybe”, said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “That sparked us,” said coach John Tortorella. “He got the emotion and enthusiasm of a young kid.”
Less than seven minutes later, Prospal took another pass from Wojtek Wolski and beat Thomas for his eight goal of the season, and improbably, it was a game.
But the rest of the drama in a stunning 5-3 comeback was yet to unfold.
The Bruins held the Rangers at bay---denying the fourth power play of the night early in the third period---and it seemed as if even one critical point in the playoff chase was not to be gained against a team that was 28-1-2 when leading after 40 minutes.
But Brandon Dubinsky took a seeing-eye pass from Ryan Callahan at the right post and waited out Thomas before sneaking the puck around him at 16:12. “I had all the time in the world,” said Dubinsky, who was mobbed by his teammates along the boards as bedlam reigned at the Garden.
And then, instead of being satisfied with the point, the Rangers attacked. The next unlikely hero, rookie defenseman Michael Sauer, found himself with the puck in the corner and Thomas coming out to challenge him. “I knew I had to keep it low,” said Sauer, who had just two goals on the season. Thomas got a piece, but not enough. “I didn’t even see the puck go in, but I saw Boyle celebrate. It may be flukey, but I’ll take it.” Biggest goal of his career? “I’d say so,” Sauer said. Derek Stepan added an empty-netter with 57 seconds left.
With two games to play, the Rangers have 91 points, tied with Montreal for sixth place in the East with two games remaining. Two other playoff contenders, the Buffalo Sabres, with 90 points, and the Carolina Hurricanes, with 87, have three games left in the regular season. The Rangers host the Thrashers Thursday and the Devils Saturday.
The evening started with the Bruins, who have clinched the Northeast Division, getting the upper hand, controlling play and territory. They outshot the Rangers 19-5 in the first period and took a two-goal lead as the jacked-up, noisy crowd was quieted and scattered boos followed the Blueshirts off the ice at the end of 20 minutes.
Before their 80th game of the season, Tortorella denied that the Rangers were fatigued, although they had lost the second game of back-to-back series five consecutive times. At this point of the season, you can’t be tired,” Tortorella said. “I think you can will yourself to get through.” And that's what they did.
“We were sluggish early on,” said Tortorella. “But this team has [guts]. There was no panic, and Dubi makes a great move. I’m not a big lovefest guy, but I like how we’ve stuck with it. It’s a great lesson and I’m happy for them.”