For two periods, the Rangers couldn’t get much accomplished against the stingy Capitals who play about as dull a defensive style as humanly possible. The first 40 minutes belonged to the visitors who led 2-0 capitalizing on two mistakes. That was despite being out-attempted 44-29 and out-shot 18-16.
Make no mistake. The Rangers didn’t give up because it’s not in their DNA. The Garden rematch of last month’s 7-3 tap out was much more competitive. They played the Caps toe to toe on even terms. But couldn’t make a dent due to the team defense which sold out to keep most of their chances to the outside. So, they still trailed.
Rather than giving in, the Blueshirts showed a lot of mettle rallying from a two-goal deficit with three consecutive goals in a hair raising third period. They hadn’t won a game all season when trailing after two. But on goals from Oscar Lindberg, Kevin Hayes and Viktor Stalberg, they were in position to pull out their best win of the season.
It probably happens if Ryan McDonagh buries a feed from Rick Nash on a 2-on-1. They had Braden Holtby dead to rights. Nash made a perfect feed across but McDonagh somehow missed. That missed chance came back to haunt them.
Instead, it was a opportunity lost. Unable to close out the resilient Caps who got a tying goal from Nicklas Backstrom at 19:54 and a breathtaking winner in the 3-on-3 roller derby from superhero Alex Ovechkin, the Rangers skated off unsatisfied with one point in a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to the first place Caps. The point moved them into a second place tie with the Islanders (4-0 losers at the Flyers). Each team has 49 points. But the Rangers have played one less game at the halfway point and hold the first tiebreaker with two more wins in regulation and overtime (21 ROW).
”This was taking a step forward as a team,” coach Alain Vigneault said. ”We battled back from a two-goal deficit against one of the best defensive teams in the league, one of the goaltenders that had been hard on a lot of teams. We were real close to getting it done.”
They might have won if Vigneault had called a timeout for a crucial defensive draw with his personnel gassed. Instead, he kept it in his hip pocket following an icing with 54 seconds left in regulation. Believing he had the right players out, he opted to play it straight up. Dominic Moore lost the draw but eventually McDonagh cleared the zone. It looked like Nash would seal victory. Instead, he was caught from behind by Matt Niskanen preventing him from shooting into an empty net.
The rest is a blur that can best be described as a total letdown. With a chance to protect a lead, they ran out of gas. The Caps hustled up ice with 22 seconds left even setting up a Ovechkin shot that Henrik Lundqvist got a piece of. Frantically, Washington got the puck back to Niskanen, who moved it to Justin Williams for a tough low shot that Lundqvist was unable to squeeze. Both McDonagh and Kevin Klein left Backstrom all alone for an easy put back that sent the game to 3-on-3.
The thing about 3-on-3 is it can turn so quickly. Of all things, Ovechkin iced the puck allowing Vigneault to send out Nash and Derek Stepan with McDonagh. Off a clean Stepan win, Nash sent a tough backhand on Holtby which he kicked out right to Stepan. He had the game on his stick but as he fired his shot, a sliding Nate Schmidt got his stick on the puck saving a goal. He then made a perfect outlet for Ovechkin who undressed Nash and McDonagh along with Lundqvist with a ridiculous forehand deke move and sweet finish ending the extreme skill competition at 1:25.
It ruined a great comeback. The Rangers showed a lot in rallying back with three goals in less than eight minutes. First, Lindberg broke a long drought when he took a Moore feed following a great McDonagh keep and beat Holtby at 5:54 of the third. It was his first goal since Dec. 3.
Before he tied it, Hayes took a bad offensive zone penalty going off for a hi-sticking minor. The Rangers penalty kill got it done. With Hayes back, Brassard and McDonagh combined to set him up for his first goal since Nov. 23. He steered home a McDonagh rebound tying the score with 10:12 left. He also helped set up Stalberg’s go-ahead tally that came with 6:49 remaining. The goal and helper were his first points since 12/18.
On a strong Hayes cycle, Keith Yandle let go of a wrist shot which Stalberg was able to redirect home past Holtby for his sixth to give the Rangers their first lead. It was Stalberg who earlier took a bad penalty that led to Dan Girardi setting up Ovechkin with an awful clearing attempt for an unassisted power play goal with 15 seconds left in the first. An exasperating sequence that put them behind.
Even without top D John Carlson and Brooks Orpik along with Marcus Johansson (suspension) and Jay Beagle, the Caps increased their lead to two when Williams was able to beat Lundqvist on a breakaway. He got some puck luck with his forehand deke attempt bouncing off the goalpost and off Lundqvist at 3:56 of the second. It was the former Kings’ 12th from Schmidt, who had two assists and the big defensive play that allowed Ovechkin to win it.
The Rangers skated without Chris Kreider, who sat out a second straight due to a cut on his hand. He wanted to return but was held out as extra precaution. Our guess is he should be ready for the Bruins on Monday. Even though he’s been up and down, he was missed. They could’ve used his size, speed and skill.
Jayson Megna dressed for a second straight. He created one early chance due to his speed while again playing with Stepan and Nash. Vigneault kept every line intact including Brassard with Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller. Zuccarello missed some chances on the power play just grazing the outside of the post on a nice set up. The Caps killed all three Ranger power plays while converting 1-of-3 thanks to Girardi’s gift to Ovechkin. Let’s just say it was not the brightest idea. Especially with Dom Moore not ready for a risky pass that basically was a lone assist for Ovechkin’s 498th career goal.
Ovechkin is a special player. He scored his 499th in breathtaking fashion. It’s what he does. He’s the most electrifying Russian to ever play in the NHL. Even more so than Pavel Bure because the Great Eight will get to 500 goals by age 30. He’s also more complete winning three Harts. There’s no shame in losing to him in 3-on-3 derby. It was a sad conclusion to a spirited comeback.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Kevin Hayes, NYR (goal-7th, assist, +2 in 18 shifts-13:36)
2nd Star-Nicklas Backstrom, WSH (game-tying goal at 19:54 of 3rd, 4 shots, 15-and-7 on draws, +2 in 26 shifts-21:52)
1st Star-Alex Ovechkin, WSH (2 goals incl. the 3-on-3 OT winner-#’s 498 and 499 for the greatest Russian NHLer)