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Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Updated: May 3, 7:43 AM ET
Caps fall to the fickle finger of fate

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- Watch New York Rangers star winger Marian Gaborik leap into the air, mobbed by his teammates in the early-morning hours of Thursday, and you wonder about what lies at the very core of overtime hockey.

Watch Washington Capitals netminder Braden Holtby and his teammates glide from the Verizon Center ice in the seconds after Gaborik's triple-overtime game winner, some hunched over in exhaustion, others looking at the video scoreboard wondering how this long, magical evening of hockey ended, and you wonder about how arbitrarily we toss around terms like "clutch" or "goat."

As in any playoff game, the lines are clearly defined at the end.

Gaborik snapped home Brad Richards' deft pass at the 14:41 mark of the third overtime period some four hours, 34 minutes after the game started to give the Rangers a 2-1 victory in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal and an identical series lead.

But what led up to that moment is a wonderful stew of moments, chances that might have sent this game, this series, in a completely different direction, chances and moments that might have revealed someone else as a hero or goat.

"I can't believe it," Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist said. "It's a feeling where, usually I scream and am so excited. I was just too tired. I was just kept saying, 'Oh, my God, it's over.' It felt like it was never going to end. It's a special feeling being a goalie and playing in overtime. All it takes is a bad decision.

"At the same time, you feel like every save makes a difference. It's a pretty cool feeling to play and be out there but when the game is this long, the toughest challenge is your mindset."

Lundqvist's 45-save performance broke a personal seven-game playoff overtime losing streak.

Amazing to think about, really, a Vezina Trophy finalist this season who has known only the painful trip off the ice at the ends of these games, dating back to 2007.

You wonder on how many nights like this one Lundqvist wondered about why the puck didn't bounce the Rangers' way, wondered about what could have been.

Those are the same questions many in the Capitals' locker room would carry home with them early Thursday morning, the images of a moment that could not be converted from chance to glory.

Like that moment early in the first overtime when Washington forward Matt Hendricks, a dynamo all night, crushed defenseman Ryan McDonagh with a check in the offensive zone and then fed the puck to Troy Brouwer all alone in front.

How does a game or a series change as Brouwer's shot sails just wide of the open net, leaving the former Cup winner staring hopelessly at the Verizon Center ceiling?

"Frustration. Frustration for me," Brouwer said as he patiently answered questions in the Capitals' locker room. "I was in tight. I was trying to get it up and it just happened to roll over my stick. I got to at least get it on net to give it a chance to go in."

How do you keep moving forward knowing how close you were to ending it?

"You can't dwell on it, you can't pout about it; you've got to move on," he said. "You've got to get out there the next shift that you're counted on to continue playing hockey rather than get mad at what could have been.

"You've got to be a professional about it and try and put it in the back of your mind. When it comes into the break, you can throw your stick and get frustrated about it but while you're on the ice, you've got to focus and play hockey."

Late in that first overtime period, Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin stripped Anton Stralman of the puck and snapped a shot off the post to Lundqvist's left. The shot happened so quickly it appeared that it had entered and exited the net in an instant.

"I saw the puck, I'm pretty sure it's not a goal," Lundqvist said. "Still, they still got a chance out of it. You need some luck. When you play three extra periods, there's no way you're going to win it without luck."

Ovechkin wasn't the only one to hear the sound of puck on metal that signals a chance denied.

Gaborik, who could not know at that moment that he would soon be vindicated with his first goal since the first game of the playoffs, caught iron cruising into the right slot area earlier in that third overtime.

"I just tried to shoot quick high glove and it hit the post. So it was about time to go in," Gaborik said of his OT winner.

Not long after Gaborik's miss, a Dennis Wideman shot deflected in front of the Rangers' goal and then kissed the far post.

The two teams combined for 95 shots in Game 3.

And what about the chances that never reached either Holtby or Lundqvist but that nonetheless left players on both sides wondering if that was the moment that passed them by?

In the second overtime Mike Rupp, a Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh, cruised uninterrupted toward the Caps' goal but instead of his shot finding the back of the net, it found teammate Brian Boyle somewhere in the vicinity of his butt.

"You think about it but there's nothing you can do. I think if the game would have ended right away after that, then I'd be really be thinking about it if it was against us. It was just one of those things. I took my time with it, I knew where I wanted to go with it, shot it and just -- he's pretty big," Rupp explained as he stood outside a surprisingly subdued Rangers locker room.

A few feet away Boyle, surrounded by reporters, recounted how he felt Rupp's shot strike him.

"The inside of the leg. It happens on both sides, you know. Obviously, I was not happy about it but I'm happy now," he said.

We talk about how fine is the line that separates competitors at this time of year. It's not just fine but long and meandering.

Rupp recalled having chances in an overtime loss in the Rangers' seven-game series win over Ottawa in the first round.

"I had a great opportunity in one of the overtimes in Ottawa, two point-blank shots, and I didn't convert and I was talking about that one because we lost, so I'm not thinking about that now, razz [Boyle] a little bit about it but it's no big deal," Rupp said.

And there's the rub for a game like this, by far the most exciting game of the series and perhaps the most exciting game of the entire playoff season to date: walking away from it.

Game 4 is Saturday afternoon in Washington.

What lingers from Game 3 might be just enough baggage to tip the scales of that game another way.

"Tonight, yeah, we replay it tonight and then tomorrow you've got to forget about it because you can't keep looking back on games. If you look back then, you're going to be playing in that game the next one. You've got to always look forward," said Washington defenseman Karl Alzner.

"It's very, very unfortunate; we're extremely upset but you've got to forget about it."