WASHINGTON -- Ultimately, it came down to a span of four minutes and 23 seconds in the second period that sunk the Rangers 3-1 in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Capitals.
They had plenty of chances after that -- the No. 6 seed Rangers outshot the No. 3 seed Capitals by a margin of 36-30 and came this close to pulling within a goal late in the third -- but couldn’t recover from a dramatic shift in momentum that allowed Washington to harness the energy in their home building and take a 1-0 series lead.
With the game tied at 1, the Rangers failed to convert on a critical 5-on-3 power play midway through the second. Minutes after, the Capitals ignited the crowd at Verizon Center with a pair of goals within a span of 46 seconds to take a 3-1 lead they managed to protect the rest of the game.
"We didn’t score on the power play. Basically the game came down to it and we didn’t score there and they come down and score two goals all within a four-minute span," said veteran center Brad Richards. "That ends up being the game and that’s the way playoff hockey goes."
Outplayed for the majority of the first period, when the Caps dominated possession and peppered goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with nine shots before New York even registered their first, the Rangers managed to escape with a 1-0 lead after the first, courtesy of Carl Hagelin’s wraparound shot that banked in off Caps defenseman John Erskine’s skate with 3:16 remaining.
With the game tied at 1, a double-minor to Caps forward Eric Fehr in the middle frame gave the Blueshirts a chance to reclaim the lead.
There were a few good looks, mainly on the 5-on-4 that followed, but the team’s power-play struggles proved costly.
"Obviously, you want to score on that opportunity in that chance," captain Ryan Callahan said. "After that, it seemed to swing a little bit their way, the momentum."
The true dagger was delivered when Washington rattled off a pair of goals within less than a minute of each other to take a commanding 3-1 lead.
It started when Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy made a fantastic tape-to-tape pass to find Marcus Johansson behind the Rangers defense for a breakaway goal at 14:21. Olesky’s seamless pass was the first career playoff point for the journeyman defenseman, who spent time in the ECHL last season, and it caught the Rangers’ blue line unaware.
"I think it’s more myself not being in the middle of the ice or maybe our forecheck not being in the middle," defenseman Dan Girardi said. "That pass happens a lot in a game. That’s not the best pass I’ve ever seen, but it was a good one. We’ve just got to make sure to keep our eyes on guys behind us."
Jason Chimera then threw the puck at the net for a 3-1 lead -- his eighth career playoff goal and sixth against the Rangers -- with 4:53 remaining in the period.
"I have to be more solid on the ice there," said Lundqvist, who finished the night with 27 saves. "I probably expected a pass and maybe I was a little slow to react but it doesn’t matter. I have to stop that."
There were bright spots for the Rangers, including a strong penalty-killing effort to start the game, but the Rangers played with fire against the Capitals’ top-ranked power play. After thwarting the first three man-up opportunities for the Capitals, the Rangers surrendered the game-tying goal to Alex Ovechkin on the power play at 6:59 of the second Ovechkin crashed to the net to bury a shot that bounced off the boards for his first playoff goal of 2013.
"We can’t take that many penalties in the game," coach John Tortorella said. "They did get a good bounce off the boards. You can’t take two in a row. Hopefully, we’ll discipline ourselves next game."
The Rangers almost managed to pull within a goal on defenseman John Moore’s attempt -- a no-goal ruling on the ice that required a lengthy review but was ultimately upheld -- in the last four minutes of the game, but Capitals netminder Braden Holtby seemed unfazed despite the stoppage.
The 23-year-old Holtby made 35 saves Thursday night, earning honors as the first star of the game.
The Capitals now hold the advantage with another game on Saturday at Verizon Center before they travel back to New York for Games 3 and 4.
And in a game that came down to one vital swing in momentum, the Rangers know that how important it is to get it back.
"That’s what the playoffs is about, momentum swings and handling it and trying to grab it back when you lose it and not trying to get hurt," Callahan said. "Tonight, it hurt us."