By Jim Cerny, BlueshirtsUnited.com
What had been a best-of-seven playoff series heading in the wrong direction for the Rangers after they dropped the first two games to the Washington Capitals is now all even two games apiece and heading back to Washington as a best-of-three after the Rangers followed up Monday's 4-3 victory with a Game Four 4-3 victory over the Caps Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Though they never trailed in the game -- and imposed their physical and offensive wills throughout much of the night -- the Rangers found it extremely difficult to put away a gutsy Washington squad. However third period goals by Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan snapped a 2-2 tie and helped the Rangers even up the series two games apiece.
Carl Hagelin starred for New York with a goal and two assists, while Derick Brassard -- who now has five points in the last two games of this series -- added a pair of helpers. Henrik Lundqvist finished with 27 saves for the Rangers, while Capitals goalie Braden Holtby stopped 30 shots despite allowing four goals for the second straight game in this series.
Tied 2-2, the Rangers started the third period on the power play after Jason Chimera took an interference penalty at the 20-minute mark of the second period. Head coach John Tortorella elected to go with his second power play unit, and it proved to be a wise decision as Brassard made a gorgeous move and pass to Girardi on left wing. Girardi proceeded to rip a slap shot short side on Holtby for his first goal of the series just 59 seconds into the third period, putting the Blueshirts ahead 3-2.
A little more than five minutes later Stepan finished a nifty give and go with Hagelin in front of Washington's goal crease to restore the Rangers two-goal lead. Stepan's second in as many games was shot into a wide open cage after his touch pass to Hagelin was quickly returned to the unchecked Stepan in front.
The Capitals did not quit trailing by two for the second time in the game, though, as Karl Alzner snuck a high shot just inside the right post after a faceoff win by Mathieu Perrault at 7:31. But Lundqvist shut the Caps down the rest of the way---making a huge save to deny Nicklas Backstrom from the slot with five minutes to play and Joel Ward from in close a minute later.
Despite dominating most of the first 40 minutes of play, and taking a 2-0 lead along the way, the Rangers somehow found themselves tied after two periods with the opportunistic Capitals scoring twice in the final seven minutes of the middle period to pull even despite a 26-15 Rangers advantage in shots.
Brad Richards opened the scoring at 16:25 of the first period and Hagelin netted his second playoff goal 10:13 into the second period as the Rangers controlled play seemingly at will with a particularly physical brand of hockey and dogged determination to possess the puck. But Perrault slammed one into the back of the net from the side of the Blueshirts cage at 13:08, and Troy Brouwer tied the game with 17.1 seconds to play in the middle stanza when his rising backhand shot eluded Lundqvist.
Adding to the Rangers frustration was that mere seconds before Brouwer's tying score, Ryan Callahan rang a shot off the crossbar at the other end of the ice. And Brian Boyle complained bitterly that the puck had crossed the blueline right before Brouwer's goal, which would have meant Washington was offsides. The linesmen disagreed with Boyle and Brouwer's goal counted.
The Rangers could have added to their 1-0 lead late in the first period when their penalty killing unit had two prime scoring chances by Stepan, but failed to convert. However on the second shorthanded rush by Stepan, Washington was assessed two penalties---one to Alex Ovechkin for hooking, the other to Martin Erat for charging---as Stepan crashed heavily into the back boards. Handed a 5-on-4 power play which then turned into 1:34 of a 5-on-3 when Michael Del Zotto emerged from the Rangers penalty box, the Blueshirts frittered away a golden opportunity to break the game open---something which came back to haunt them when Washington eventually pulled even late in the second period.
Richards' first goal of the post-season came off a bizarre play in which Holtby was caught way out of his net after playing the puck at the bottom of the left circle. Holtby looked to clear the puck to his right, but Taylor Pyatt did an excellent job of flagging the puck down. Pyatt fired a shot towards the net as Holtby scrambled back, but the shot was blocked, at which point Hagelin slid the disc to Richards who zipped it into the back of the net for a 1-0 Rangers lead late in the first period.
Hagelin made it 2-0 by blasting a left circle shot off the rush past Holtby's gloved hand midway through the second period. Ryane Clowe---back in the lineup after missing four games with an undisclosed injury---slid a pass just inside the Caps zone to Brassard, who in turn made a perfect cross-ice pass to a streaking Hagelin on left wing to set up the score.
While Clowe returned to the Rangers lineup for this crucial---and physically punishing---Game Four, winger Darroll Powe was scratched after being hurt in the first period of Monday night's Game Three. On the other side of the puck, Washington's Erat suffered an upper body injury on the play in which he wa spenalized for charging Stepan.