NEW YORK — Alex Ovechkin was trying desperately to get to the front of the Washington net late in regulation with the score tied at 2 in Game 3 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. In an attempt to swipe the puck out of danger, though, the Capitals’ star left wing accidentally tipped it into the net for what proved to be the game-winning tally for the New York Rangers.
Ovechkin lay on the ice, head resting on top of his arms, motionless as Madison Square Garden erupted in celebration of the Rangers’ 3-2 victory. The win puts New York back in this first-round matchup and cuts Washington’s lead to two games to one.
The goal was officially credited to Brandon Dubinsky and came with 1 minute 39 seconds remaining in the third period of yet another tight, physical contest between the Capitals and Rangers Sunday afternoon.
“I think it was my mistake,” said Ovechkin, who also recorded a goal and an assist in the loss. “When we hold puck in the corner I just turn it over and then try to make a play, but again it hit my stick and goes in.”
The Capitals already had come back from two one-goal deficits over the course of the contest, but a third resurgence didn’t happen. Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist finished with 23 saves while Michal Neuvirth, under arguably the most duress he has faced in the series, finished with 32 stops.
It was the most shots New York has managed to fire on Neuvirth so far in the series, but a number that also reflected the Capitals’ eight penalties in the contest, yielding 10 minutes and 33 seconds of total power-play time for the Rangers, including two-man advantages.
The frequent trips to the box were part of the ripple effect from New York’s apparent game plan to hit early and often, particularly against Washington’s defensemen and Neuvirth, and goad anyone into taking a retaliatory penalty.
“You can’t take [eight] penalties,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You knew they were going to be antagonistic and you’ve just gotta take it. This is the time of year you take it. Game 10 of the year you don’t take it.”
Although the Rangers forced an uptick in chippiness and yammering from the outset, the first period carried on much like the two previous games in the series as a tight, low-scoring affair. The Rangers couldn’t generate much offense five-on-five and Washington started to make frequent trips to the penalty box, throwing its offense off as well.
New York’s first sustained push came late in the first, when an errant clearing attempt by Mike Knuble went over the glass and resulted in 1:25 of a five-on-three. The game remained scoreless entering the second, though, when the Capitals were called for two quick minor penalties in the opening five minutes.
The second of those calls sent John Carlson to the box for cross-checking and finally the Rangers’ anemic power play (16.9 percent in the regular season) broke through. Erik Christensen sent a laser of a shot from a bad angle over Neuvirth’s left shoulder and into the net to give New York a 1-0 lead at 5:30 of the second.
Before the 11-minute mark in the second, two more penalties were called on the Capitals, but Knuble said afterward that officiating shouldn’t be used as an excuse.
“We knew going in [it would be called tightly]. Precedent had been set in the other games around the league,” Knuble said. “You watch the games yesterday and you see Philly-Buffalo, 10 power plays each, or whatever. You know they’re looking — it’s not playoff hockey of old. You get sticks on guys, somebody stumbles, you can-open a guy a little bit, you’re going to get called.”
After a faceoff in the Rangers’ zone late in the middle period, Ovechkin was shoved and then tripped by New York’s Brian Boyle. When the Capitals left wing stood up, he drove to the net, where he was able to redirect a shot by Jason Arnott to tie the score at 1 with 59.2 seconds remaining in the period.
On the same play as the goal, defenseman Mike Green, who had passed the puck to Arnott, was hit from behind by Marc Staal in the increasingly physical contest, but he was able to join the celebration in the corner.
While Ovechkin’s tally zapped the energy out of the capacity crowd, it didn’t seem to fluster the Rangers as much.
With time winding down in the second, Ruslan Fedotenko took a shot off John Erskine and the puck entered the Capitals’ net near the right post, possibly giving the Rangers the lead once more. The play was reviewed, however, and the goal didn’t count because time on the official game clock had expired before the puck crossed the goal line.
New York did eventually re-establish a lead, just more than eight minutes into the third, when Vinny Prospal gained control of a rebound and shot into an open net to make it 2-1. Washington answered in turn with a power-play goal by Knuble on a rebound to knot things up at 2 with just more than five minutes remaining. Before the Rangers and Capitals could enter overtime for a second time this series, however, it was a bouncing puck — off Karl Alzner’s shoulder, then Ovechkin’s stick — that would be the Capitals’ undoing.
“Of course it is not the end of the world,” Ovechkin said when asked if he was disappointed. “They need this win. We need this win. It is a hard battle. It is going to be interesting series to play.”