Even when New York Rangers coach John Tortorella pleaded for a respite from his lengthy postgame press conference -- asking his PR exec, “Can you get me the hell outta here?" -- he did so with a sardonic smile.
That sort of levity was a luxury Tortorella couldn’t afford after his team went down 2-0 in the series against the Washington Capitals, but there was a sense of relief and encouragement after the Rangers topped Washington 4-3 in Game 3 Monday at Madison Square Garden.
A three-game deficit would’ve been a daunting one, and it was clear the Rangers were desperate to avoid that hole as they outlasted the Capitals to whittle the series edge, 2-1.
Buoyed by the return of defenseman Marc Staal and bolstered by key contributions throughout their lineup Monday, the Rangers now have the chance to even the series Wednesday on home ice.
“There was a lot of determination going into this game,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who finished the night with 28 saves. “We knew we had to win this one. It was a must-win. We really stepped up as a group and they kept coming. They’re a good team and you have to respect that, but we scored some big goals tonight.”
Top center Derek Stepan, who paced the Rangers in scoring with 44 points in the regular season, tallied his first goal of the playoffs to snap a 3-3 tie in the third period. Stepan’s expert deflection off a pass from Rick Nash stood up as the deciding goal with 6:25 remaining in regulation.
It was both Stepan's and Nash’s first point of the playoffs -- a key contribution from two of the team’s most dynamic forwards.
"Early on tonight, I had a little struggle. The first two periods, I just seemed to be a step behind or something,” Stepan said. “It was a good goal for me, it definitely helped. But it doesn’t go in the back of the net without a pass like that from Rick Nash and a play by [defenseman Ryan McDonagh] at the blue line.”
The Rangers also received a stellar three-point (one goal, two assists) performance out of center Derick Brassard, who made a great pass to set up Arron Asham’s third-period marker, and Brian Boyle, who gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead early in the first just as the team’s first power play expired.
Boyle also added an assist and finished with a game-high 14-for-21 from the faceoff circle.
“We get some good minutes from Brian Boyle, [Derick Brassard] and a number of people helped out here tonight,” Tortorella said. "We’re going to need that if we want to stay alive.”
Also vital was the glimpse of life shown on the Rangers' power play, which entered Monday’s game an anemic 0-for-7. Although Boyle’s marker at 12:50 of the first came at the expiry of Joel Ward's high-sticking penalty, Brassard’s goal in the second came on the power play. The Rangers moved the puck and got more good looks at the net, enabling them to pressure Braden Holtby as the Capitals took a whopping six penalties through the first 26:32 of play.
Holtby didn’t blame those in front of him, though. The Capitals’ penalty kill has otherwise been stout throughout the series, surrendering only one of 13 goals while down a man thus far.
“I am guilty as well,” he said. “I didn’t think it was terrible on our part. I don’t think we were taking lazy penalties. I just think it was one of those games where it could have gone either way. We took too many penalties. Our PK was still good, but it’s tough to gain momentum with that.”
Perhaps the best special teams moment for either team was the Rangers killing off a 6-on-4 late in the game. With alternate captain Brad Richards in the box for slashing with 1:56 left in the game, and Holtby pulled for the extra attacker, the Rangers were stingy in their own end. They shut the door on what has been a dangerous Caps power play to lock up Game 3.
Alex Ovechkin, who had a point in each of the first two games of the series, was held off the score sheet Monday.
“Obviously, we would like to score there,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who scored the game’s first goal on a deflection. We’ve got to execute and get some shots through at least. We have to do a better job.”
Said Capitals coach Adam Oates:
“We were probably a little too cute with it.”
For the first time this series, it will be the Capitals second-guessing those critical plays, those mere inches surrendered. Meanwhile, the Rangers gain some traction -- and confidence -- heading into Game 4.
“I think, the guys, we had some fun tonight,” Brassard said. “I think in Washington we were grabbing our sticks a little too hard. Tonight we just had fun. We made plays. We put some pucks on net. That’s what we need to do the rest of the series.”