NEW YORK – Rangers center Derek Stepan moved around Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, and appeared to have the entire net to shoot at, with plenty of time to send the Rangers towards what would have been their most uplifting, season-altering win of the season.
As he wound up to send the Rangers to a thrilling, come-from-behind overtime win over the NHL-leading Washington Capitals, defenseman Nate Schmidt swung his stick towards the puck, parrying it away from danger, and towards winger Alex Ovechkin. He wheeled around the net, gained speed, and scored an incredible coast-to-coast goal to send the Caps over the Rangers, 4-3. It was the 499th-career goal for Ovechkin, who played in his 800th-career NHL game.
“Their D-man just made a good play,” Stepan said. “It’s funny how our sport works – one save at one end, and it seems to always go back and go in the other net. I don’t know what else I can do other than make the move I made. The goalie was pretty much in my face, so I had only one move.”
The Rangers (22-14-5) still haven’t won back-to-back games since Nov. 21-23, while the league-leading Capitals (31-7-3) improved to 12-1-1 in their last 14 games.
After trailing 2-0 through 40 minutes, the Rangers stormed back with three goals in a span of 7:17 of the third period, a stunning recovery against one of the best defensive teams – and goalies – in the league.
“We played a good game, we didn’t give up that much,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 27 saves. “In the third, we played really well. It just sucks, the way we battled back, really played well in the third, just couldn’t get that last one.”
“For me, this is more about taking a step forward as a team,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “We battled back from a two-goal deficit against one of the best defensive teams in the league and one of the goaltenders who’s made it hard on a lot of teams. We were real close to getting it done, but I think we took a step in the right direction.”
With 55 seconds left and the Capitals swarming for the tying goal, the Rangers iced the puck. But coach Alain Vigneault decided not to use his timeout, leaving a tired Ryan McDonagh on the ice to face the onslaught.
“I had the people I wanted out there. Yeah, Mac might have been a little bit tired there, but we got the puck out [of the zone],” Vigneault said. “If he was really tired, he would have come to the bench instead of stay on the ice, so he couldn’t have been that tired.”
“Our players were tired, there’s no question,” said Lundqvist. “A little break there before the last faceoff would have been good. But we didn’t take that break, so we got caught out there. They’re a good team, they’re going to get a couple looks. It’s just frustrating.”
Nicklas Backstrom, left alone in front by McDonagh, pounded home a rebound with 5.7 seconds left, ruining the furious comeback that had the Rangers thinking they were on the verge of winning consecutive games against the team with the NHL’s best record. The Stars had the mark on Tuesday, when they were soundly beaten at the Garden.
“We did a lot of good things tonight,” Stepan said. “We played a really good game. I think, you look at their goals, one’s a power-play goal early on, and they get a breakaway goal. They didn’t really see much more until the last few minutes when they had a six-on-five.”
“I felt as soon as we took the lead [that we’d win],” McDonagh said. “We’re usually really solid in those last minutes there, blocking shots and getting the puck out. They were able to find a way to get one there in the dying seconds. It’s unfortunate, we definitely should have been trying to defend the front of the net there, myself, and take away that guy’s time and space.”
Ovechkin opened the scoring when he took a brutal giveaway by Dan Girardi right out in front with 14.8 seconds left in the first, and Justin Williams added a breakaway goal less than four minutes into the second.
Despite that, the Rangers were an inch away from their most improbable victory of the season. Instead, they’re left to ruminate this missed opportunity. That’s hockey.
The Capitals improved to 23-1-0 when scoring first, and despite blowing a two-goal lead, improved to 22-0-1 when leading after 40 minutes.
Ovechkin had his fourth-career regular-season multi-goal game against the Rangers. All four have come at Madison Square Garden.