Had this been a heavyweight fight Monday night at Madison Square Garden, the underdog Washington Capitals would have had the New York Rangers on the ropes. The final round was almost over, and the judges were counting up their scorecards.
But then, one simple cut changed everything. In this case that cut came from the stick of Caps forward Joel Ward to the face of Carl Hagelin with less than 25 seconds left.
The resulting four-minute penalty led to the game-tying goal with 6.6 seconds left in regulation and then another power-play goal less than two minutes into overtime to give the Rangers a 3-2 win and a commanding 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"I definitely let the squad down and it cost us a game with a terrible play," a downtrodden Ward said in the locker room. "I was just hoping for another chance to redeem myself. When you're in the box there's nothing much you can do."
The game-winning goal came off of a faceoff deep in the Capitals' zone. John Mitchell pulled the puck back to Marc Staal at the right point, and he unleashed a slap shot that deflected off a falling Matt Hendricks and past Braden Holtby.
And there was much rejoicing.
But perhaps not as much rejoicing as there was when the Rangers tied it in the final seconds of regulation.
With the goalie pulled and Joel Ward in the penalty box, the Rangers threw everything they had toward the net. Michael Del Zotto 's shot from the left point was deflected into Holtby's pad by Brian Callahan. He then stuffed two more shots into Holtby's pad before Brad Richards stuck his nose into the scrum and shot it just as Holtby attempted to pounce on it. The puck went past Holtby and under the arm of John Carlson, who was on his knees in the crease attempting to play goal behind his diving goaltender. After getting past Carlson, the puck hit the post and bounced into the net, sending the MSG crowd into a frenzy.
The four-minute penalty on Ward turned out to be the difference in the game.
"Yeah, it's a tough break," Troy Brouwer said. "Ward was just battling hard for the puck and his stick just came up and it happens to be a four-minute and not a two-minute."
The win means the Rangers can knock the Capitals out of the playoffs Wednesday in Game 6 at the Verizon Center. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m.
Holtby said he was screened on the final shot that whistled by him to end the game.
"I didn't see a thing," he said. "Whether it had a lane or not, I'd have to look at the video to see whether or not I could have done a better job seeing around the traffic. That's what happens when we play a style where we block a lot of shots. Sometimes those go in, and it just happened to be in overtime today."
The Rangers dominated the stat sheet Monday night in the shot column, outshooting the Caps 38-18, but the Capitals were able to take advantage of the opportunities given to them to take a 2-1 lead late into the third period.
A Mike Rupp penalty against the Caps' grind line led to a chance with the man advantage, and Washington's power play took advantage not only of the penalty, but of a penalty killer's broken stick. John Carlson's slap shot from the point snapped Callahan's stick in two, putting the PK unit in a predicament it couldn't recover from. The shooting gallery had begun. The puck then went to Dennis Wideman at the far point, and his blast was knocked down in front but not out. Wideman got the puck again, but instead of shooting decided to go to the other point so Carlson could take advantage of Callahan sans stick.
Carlson had a clear lane to the net, so he wound up and fired a heavy blast that Lundqvist could only get a piece of with his glove before it tickled the twine.
The Rangers started the scoring in the first period. Staal sent a pass from the left point to the right to Anton Stralman, who carried the puck down along the right wing boards, around a flailing Caps winger and fired a puck on net from the right boards. The seeing-eye puck went through a Caps' defenseman's legs, under a surprised Holtby's pad and into the net to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead halfway through the first period.
The Capitals tied it in the second on a goal by Brooks Laich. After winning a faceoff in the offensive zone, the puck came back to Laich in the circle. He dished it to Ovechkin in the left-wing corner. Ovi tried to pass it into the slot where Brouwer was camped out, but the puck deflected off of Brian Boyle's stick into the high slot, where Laich was more than happy to corral it with his stick and wrist it past Lundqvist low glove side.
Carlson's goal in the third gave the Caps the lead, but they couldn't put the game away.
The best opportunity to do so: a Nicklas Backstrom breakway with midway through the final period.
Backstrom got behind the Rangers' defense and had an opportunity to give the Caps' a much-needed two-goal lead. Backstrom went backhand, but his shot clanged off the crossbar.
That missed opportunity hurt, as the Rangers eventually came back to tie it and eventually win it in overtime.
It's now back to D.C., where the Caps will face elimination.
"It's real tough, but we have to know that the series isn't over yet," Brouwer said. "We've been in situations where we've been down and been able to tie it up. We're going home to a building where we know we have confidence in the playoffs ... and we know the building's going to be rockin' Wednesday night."