Stepan’s goal 6 minutes 2 seconds into the third period stood as the decisive tally in New York’s 4-3 win over the Capitals at Madison Square Garden, knotting the first-round series at two games apiece.
Washington is 0-6 all time in series after leading two-games-to-one and then losing in Game 4.
Long before Stepan’s goal, though, the Capitals looked sloppy and unlike the team that came to New York with a 2-0 series lead. For the first time in this matchup, and perhaps the past several months, Washington was thoroughly outplayed at even strength — especially in the first half of the contest. Despite erasing a two-goal deficit at one point, they were never able to establish control.
“We didn’t play good. We played bad for 45 minutes, and that’s not fun either,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We just need to get back to the basics. We got away from it. It wasn’t easy to handle the puck out there today, and we needed to play much simpler hockey than we did.”
The Rangers’ intensity was palpable from the opening faceoff as their forecheck finally found its footing. By the midpoint of the second period, the Capitals had yet to manage anything resembling a clean breakout. On the rare occasion when they did cross the blue line, they regularly turned the puck over in the neutral zone, returning quickly to their own end.
“They came out, tried to be a little physical. We talked about that,” Coach Adam Oates said. “You expect that. It’s their building, you’ve got to handle that little initial wave and then power plays didn’t do anything. We got a little frustrated with that, and then we gave them a goal. So it was a lousy start.”
Dominating for the majority of the opening frame, the Rangers eventually capitalized after disrupting a clearing attempt by Braden Holtby.
Carl Hagelin raced into the zone on the forecheck as the netminder drifted out to make a long outlet pass, but Hagelin pulled up at the last second and curled into the slot. Holtby sent the pass, perhaps his greatest gaffe of the series, up the middle of the ice. Taylor Pyatt swatted it out of the air, sending the Capitals, goaltender included, scrambling back toward the crease. But it was too late.
Defenseman John Carlson stood in front and blocked the first shot by Hagelin, but the rebound popped out to Brad Richards. Holtby had slid past the yawning cage and was helpless as Richards put the Rangers up, 1-0, with 16:25 gone in the first.
“I thought I made the right play,” Holtby said. “I just need to get that a foot higher in the air, make him take a high stick. He made a great play knocking that down. He doesn’t make that, that’s a breakaway the other way. That happens.”
New York carried its one-goal edge into the first intermission but the Capitals suffered another blow to their efforts before the break.
Martin Erat suffered an apparent injury to his left wrist or forearm with 1:34 remaining in the first after an intense collision and didn’t return to the contest. The 31-year-old winger was stride-for-stride with Stepan heading toward the Capitals’ net when Alex Ovechkin launched himself into them. Erat’s glove was ripped off and when he crashed to the ice he landed on his left wrist.
New York’s domination at even strength continued early into the second and Hagelin increased the lead to 2-0 with a slap shot from the left circle at the 10:13 mark. The Capitals managed to make a push after being outshot 21-9 to start the contest.
Washington’s third line, which was a bright spot even early on as the only forward unit creating consistent offensive pressure, cut the deficit to 2-1 with 13:08 gone in the second on a goal by Mathieu Perreault. Troy Brouwer pulled the Capitals even at 2 with a backhander from the slot with 17. 1 seconds left in the frame, but the momentum wouldn’t last.
“You don’t want to find yourself down two goals,” said Perreault, who added his second goal of the game in the third to make it 4-3. “We actually found a way to battle back for the two first and then we just fell short.”
Jason Chimera was whistled for interference at the end of the second period and the penalty proved costly at the start of the third when it took New York just 59 seconds to regain the lead. Defenseman Dan Girardi pounded a slap shot from the top of the circles past Holtby for a 3-2 edge.
“It’s tough when you have to start the period on a kill because they have 15 to 20 minutes to go over what they’re going to do,” said Brouwer, who was on the ice for that penalty kill. “We can prepare as much as we can and they moved the puck well, they picked seams on us and they made a good shot.”
The erratic and lengthy shift for the Capitals’ top line and pairing of Hillen and Oleksy that led to Stepan’s tally came a little over five minutes later as New York pushed its way back into this series.
“Everybody knows it’s playoffs. Nobody’s gonna give up right away,” Ovechkin said. “Doesn’t matter if gonna be score, but right now we go home and go and play against them with our fans and in our building. It’s gonna I hope be much better for us.”