We didn't have the legs," Coach Bryan Murray said after the New York Rangers had come from behind to beat his Washington Capitals, 5-4, tonight. "Their legs were the determining factor late in the game, and they played well."
The Capitals had taken a 2-1 lead in the first period, and added two more in the second before the Rangers rallied, skating hard and sending a total of 42 shots at goalie Al Jensen. Murray pulled Jensen late in the game in favor of a sixth skater, but Washington could do no more than prevent further damage.
The loss brought the Capitals back into a tie with the New York Islanders for second place in the Patrick Division. The teams play Wednesday at Capital Centre and the second-place finisher will gain home-ice advantage in their first-round match-up in the playoffs that begin a week after that.
"We'd be telling an untruth if we said it's not important. Playing the Islanders, having the home ice is an edge, because they are so used to winning playoff games on Long Island," Murray said.
Before they had unlaced their skates, Washington players were thinking ahead to Wednesday's Islanders game rather than reflecting on tonight.
"We just weren't thinking the way we should (in the third period)," said Mike Gartner. "The four games in five nights took a bit of a toll, but you have to dig deeper. We could have dug deeper tonight."
Early on, the Capitals seemed to coast along, with Milan Novy's unassisted goal at 2:43 of the first period followed by Chris Valentine's score halfway through the period.
On the first goal, Novy skated the puck into the Ranger zone and situated himself between the faceoff circles, taking aim at goalie Ed Mio. His shot bounced off a post and back out, onto his own stick, so Novy shot again from about 25 feet, this time sending the puck flying into the netting.
The second goal came after Bobby Carpenter had faked a shot on a two-one-one break before passing to Valentine, just to Mio's left. Valentine slipped the puck into the cage while Mio whirled in confusion.
Mark Pavelich got the Rangers into the game on his first of two late in the first period, and came up with the game-winner at 6:06 in the third. In between, Gaetan Duchesne kept the Capitals on top by taking a pass from Carpenter in the slot, Anders Hedberg brought the Rangers within a goal with his feed from Rob McClanahan at 5:15 of the middle period, and Mike Allison tied it at 3-all with a power play goal, thanks to Doug Jarvis' hooking penalty.
The Rangers had begun to turn the game into an up-and-down, helter-skelter night with that goal. But before the always-vocal Madison Square Garden fans had settled into their seats after applauding Allison's feat, Valentine piacked up a blocked New York shot and skated down ice toward Mio.
Valentine controlled the puck from the his own blueline, picked up speed, and moved straight in to score on the goaltender just 36 seconds after the Rangers' goal.
But that was the last of the Washington goals. New York came out determined in the last period, with Reijo Ruotsalainen putting Eddie Johnston's pass by Jensen at 4:38 of the third period to tie it again.
"We had some good chances. I'm not saying we played badly," Murray said later. 'We didn't make any brutal mistakes, and I thought the guys worked hard. And Jensen played well."
Jensen, his usual quiet self after the loss, said he really didn't think about the kind of game the Rangers might play. "You don't think about that (number of shots on goal)," he said. "But they're a good team. It could really have gone either way, with a bounce. Going four games in five nights, I still think we played very well."
McClanahan, asked if he thought the Capitals seemed weary in the late going, blinked and said, "Them tired? Hell, I was tired!"
He sent the puck cross ice to set up Pavelich's winning goal at 6:06 of the final 20 minutes. With that goal, the Capitals pressed harder, but the Rangers doubled their efforts, effectively killing Washington's lone power play chance in the third, which came when Allison was whistled for tripping at 15:54.
"We had some good chances," said Dennis Maruk. He shrugged. "Wednesday's game, that'll be a good one."