By Jim Cerny, BlueshirtsUnited.com
Derek Stepan's goal with 6:25 to play in the third period lifted the Rangers to a crucial and thrilling 4-3 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Monday night at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers now trail the best-of-seven series two games to one, with the home team having won all three games in this series so far. Game Four is to be played Wednesday night at The Garden.
Near the left wing wall in the offensive zone Rick Nash wristed the puck towards Washington's crease and Stepan deflected it past Caps goalie Braden Holtby to snap a nail-biting 3-3 tie. Ryan McDonagh, who did not receive an assist on the play, set the winning score in motion by keeping an attempted clear in at the blueline, toeing the line like a nimble dancer before passing to Mats Zuccarello, who in turn found Nash in left wing corner.
Both Stepan and Nash recorded their first points of the series on the game-winning goal. Derick Brassard starred in Game Three with a goal and two assists, while Brian Boyle had a goal and an assist, and Zuccarello had a pair of helpers. Henrik Lundqvist finished with 28 saves.
Marc Staal returned to the Rangers lineup for the first time since suffering a frightening eye injury on March 5th against Philadelphia. Wearing a new shield to cover his eyes, Staal received a standing ovation when introduced as part of the starting lineup. He played a strong game paired on defense with Anton Stralman.
Tied 2-2 entering the third period, the two teams exchanged scores from unlikely sources over the first 7:19 of the final stanza. The Rangers grabbed a 3-2 lead when Arron Asham skated into the low slot to one-time a Brassard pass past Holtby at 2:53. But after Washington won an offensive zone faceoff, defenseman Jack Hillen managed to slip a shot past Lundqvist to tie the game at 7:19.
After trading goals in each of the first two periods, the Rangers and Capitals reached the second intermission tied 2-2, setting the stage for the most important period the Rangers have played to this point all season. Lundqvist had a slew of sensational saves, mostly in the second period, while Holtby helped his teammates kill five of six Ranger power plays through 40 minutes of play.
Despite playing on home ice in front of their own raucous supportive crowd and having a power play just 63 seconds into the game, the Rangers surrendered the first goal. Nicklas Backstrom deflected John Carlson's shot from right wing past Lundqvist at 4:06 of the first period to give Washington a 1-0 lead. But the Rangers continued to play a rugged brand of hockey---exemplified by Anton Stralman obliterating Alex Ovechkin along the left wing wall with a textbook hipcheck at the 7:20 mark of the first---and stayed in the game despite the early deficit.
One second after a failed power play, Brian Boyle forced his way to the net on right wing and beat Holtby to the short side, tying the game 1-1 at 12:50 of the opening period. So good and effective was Boyle that he was promoted off the fourth line after his goal and also given extensive power play time the rest of the night.
The Rangers were handed another power play chance early in the second period when Holtby was called for a tripping penalty by his net. Brassard cashed in for the Blueshirts at 1:23 after Mats Zuccarello found him alone in the slot. The goal was Brassard's first career playoff goal---while his assist earlier on Boyle's goal was his first career playoff point. Zuccarello's assist was the first post-season point of his NHL career.
Despite two more power plays over the next five minutes the Rangers could not break through against Holtby, and it was Washington which began to find its game. Lundqvist kept the Rangers in the lead with a point-blank pad save on Backstrom midway through the second and followed by flagging down Green's hard wrist shot from right wing seconds later. Then with seven minutes to play in the period Lundqvist lunged to his left to rob a wide-open Mike Ribeiro; and two minutes after that he stoned Troy Brouwer from the low slot during a Capitals' power play.
But after a prolonged shift in the Rangers end of the ice, Washington finally did score the equalizer when Green beat Lundqvist high to the glove side at 17:19, setting the stage for make-or-break third period for the home team.
The Rangers lost the services of rugged winger Darroll Powe 8:30 into the opening period due to an undisclosed injury. Powe delivered a check on Washington's Joel Ward, but may have taken an elbow to the head. He was clearly shaken up---even falling to the ice in wobbly fashion after he got back up. Powe headed to the dressing room shortly thereafter and did not play again the rest of the game.