NEW YORK -- It had already been a brutal, hard-fought, wildly seesawing game that saw the New York Rangers leap ahead by three goals, only to see the Washington Capitals claw back in the final period of regulation to get even with a three-goal outburst of their own.
Now they had all dragged each other into one overtime, then another, and the main reason the Rangers were still in this game at all was because their best player, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, was playing better than Washington's best, Alex Ovechkin.
Then the game -- and probably the Rangers' chances in this razor-close series -- were over almost faster than Lundqvist could process how it happened:
Another save. A fall forward to smother the puck to stop play. Then a surprise rap on his glove hand as a teammate, Marian Gaborik, went to poke the puck away and instead knocked it right to Capitals forward Jason Chimera. He slapped it into the net from a foot away to send the Rangers spiraling down to a crushing 4-3 double-overtime loss and -- worse -- a 3-1 series hole that they seemed a lock to avoid three periods earlier, back when the Madison Square Garden crowd was loudly mocking Ovechkin's missed chances and chanting Washington coach Bruce Boudreau's name for some insults he'd made about the self-proclaimed Mecca a few days earlier.
"I don't know what happened [on the last play]. ... I'll have to look at it," a dazed Lundqvist said. "I went to freeze the puck ... nobody was there ... then it was in the back of the net. But that's how it happens in these kinds of games."
This sort of heartbreak was not the ending that Lundqvist deserved -- not after dramatically stoning Ovechkin on a clean breakaway in the first overtime and playing through cramps that kept seizing at his legs; not after taking a shot smack in the face that snapped his head back and broke the grill on his goaltender's mask just a few minutes before Chimera's game-winner in the second overtime.
Now, instead of tying this series at two games apiece, the Rangers have two days to ponder how in the world they can come back from this kind of loss by the time Game 5 arrives on Saturday afternoon in Washington. The Rangers lost Game 1 in overtime, too. But this was worse. Much worse. After this one, the Rangers knew they had only themselves to blame. Mistakes or turnovers led to three of Washington's four goals. The only cheap one Lundqvist surrendered came when the puck trickled out from under him in the crease as he was waiting, hoping, praying for a whistle.
"I don't know ... it's just really frustrating, it's painful ... it's just, just so tough right now," Lundqvist said, exhaling heavily.
He faced 53 shots, all told, and he looked exhausted, disgusted, too tired to even think. Another wave of questioners came at him. Same questions. Same answers.
"Ahh ... it's just so tough right now," Lundqvist repeated with a groan. Then, finally mustering some more fight, he added: "Yeah, we're down 3-1. But it's not impossible."
Impossible to come back? No.
Highly unlikely? Yes.
If the Rangers do go on to lose this series, their inability to hold onto the 3-0 lead they seized in the raucous second period on Wednesday night will haunt them even more than the particulars of Chimera's goal -- which Gaborik, by the way, never appeared in the Rangers' locker room to discuss.
The Caps' Boudreau didn't skate a shift, of course, but his disparaging remarks on Monday about how playing the Rangers at Madison Square Garden just isn't that intimidating hung over him like an anvil with every goal the Rangers buried in the net to pull away to their early lead. Two of the Rangers' second-period goals came in the stunning span of seven seconds, and one of them was by Gaborik, his first in a 13-game span stretching back a month. By then, the Rangers' fans had moved on from the "Boudreau s----" chants they showered him with at the start of the game to even louder sing-song chants of "Can you hear us? Can you hear us?"
Given Washington's recent history of bad playoff flops, the Capitals would've been hearing footsteps in the back of their minds, too, if the Rangers had just been able to tie this series. Last season, the Capitals were the top seed in the East, same as they are now, and lost to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadians. The season before that, they blew a 2-1 series lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now here they were, facing an eighth-seeded Rangers team that had needed help to squeak into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. Had they lost, the flop sweat would've been back, all right.
All that talk from them about how this season was going to be different -- different season, different team -- would've also been used to mock them in the tense wait for Saturday's game to arrive. The Rangers would've had momentum. They would've been able to lean on good memories, such as the sight of Lundqvist stopping Ovechkin on that one-man breakaway. Had they won, they would've been able to keep talking about how they might not be as talented as the Capitals but their resiliency and toughness were so far paying off.
Instead, what they left the ice with after 92 minutes of teeth-rattling, backbreaking hockey was this: More heartbreak heaped atop the rest. More than Lundqvist deserved.
"Yeah, it's tough to think now about how can we come back," Lundqvist admitted. "But we don't have any choice."