John Vanbiesbrouck, the levelheaded goalie for the New York Rangers, put the status of the Patrick Division final series very simply.
"Any way you look at it," Vanbiesbrouck said, after his team beat the Washington Capitals, 4-2, last night at Capital Centre to take a 3-2 series lead, "the Caps are not in a good position."
Bad may be the word to describe the Capitals' situation after they blew another two-goal lead and now must win two games to take the series, the first of which will be Sunday night in what promises to be an inhospitable setting at Madison Square Garden.
"We can't take anything for granted," said Vanbiesbrouck, "because when we do, that's when we get blown out. But one more win -- it's a good feeling."
Vanbiesbrouck and the Rangers were down 2-0 before they or anyone else knew what was happening.
Rangers James Patrick and Larry Melnyk were in the penalty box when Washington's Dave Christian skated in alone on left wing and put a low wrist shot through Vanbiesbrouck's legs for a 1-0 lead at 2:51 of the first period.
With Washington still on the power play, Scott Stevens scored 43 seconds later by putting a backhand over a sprawled Vanbiesbrouck after Christian hit the post.
But the Capitals have been disposing of two-goal leads like so much litter lately.
"Today we stuck to our game plan, even though we got down by two early," Vanbiesbrouck said. "But we knew we could come back."
And right away. New York's Pierre Larouche scored 31 seconds after Stevens.
"Before they really got their momentum going, we cut the lead in half," said Rangers captain Don Maloney, who scored the final goal of that game, at 2:12 of the third period. "If we had waited a little longer it might have been different."
The Rangers had it tied by the end of the first period and then took the lead in the second on Wilf Paiement's goal.
"We got it back to 2-2," said Larouche, who set up Paiement's goal, "and it became a matter of who gets the next one."
Once in possession of the lead, they sent in just one forechecker and stood their ground at the blue line.
"We forced them to take a lot of long shots," Vanbiesbrouck said. "The defense -- Willie Huber, James Patrick, Rexy Reijo Ruotsalainen , Larry Melynk -- played great and were picking up rebounds like they were glue."
The Rangers never were expected to get by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, much less be a victory away from going to the conference final.
"It never ceases to amaze us," Maloney said. "I'm surprised we're up 3-2. Who would have thought it?"
The weight of being the favorite might be taking its toll on the Capitals.
"They must be feeling the pressure," Maloney said. "We really have nothing to lose. If we lose the next two games, it will still be a great season. So we're in an ideal situation. We can work like madmen and take what we can get."
The Rangers gladly would take another performance like last night's from Vanbiesbrouck.
"It was his best game of the series," Maloney said.
"This was the first game," said Washington's Mike Gartner, "where Vanbiesbrouck was a factor."
The 22-year-old goaltender from Detroit was peeling the layers of padding and uniform off last night. And while he retained his smile, he also clung to a bit of realism.
"I don't want to blow this out of proportion," he said. "If I get too high emotionally, I'll choke.
"It's just a matter of taking one game at a time -- one more. You can't go around saying, 'Yeah! Yeah!' Have to think about one more hockey game -- hopefully one more."