- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- The top-seeded New York Rangers were less than 10 seconds from seeing the giant-killing Washington Capitals push them one loss from playoff elimination. The Rangers were just 10 ticks from finishing yet another game in which they threw shot after shot at the net with little to show for it except the recurring, aggravating thought that for them, a good sniper is so damn hard to find.
Then, in an instant, everything changed. And what had been a night of utter frustration for New York turned on a goal by Brad Richards with 6.6 seconds left in regulation -- the blow that started the Rangers' charge to a 3-2 overtime win, and the sort of great escape that a playoff hockey team can ride for a very, very long time.
"It was mayhem there in the last minute," Richards admitted, thinking back to how linemate Carl Hagelin got a bloodied lip that drew a four-minute high-sticking penalty from Joel Ward with just 22 seconds left to play. And then how the Rangers' power play -- which hadn't managed a single shot in three tries earlier in the night -- sprang to life just in time.
Ryan Callahan took three whacks at a rebound off the pads of Washington goalie Braden Holtby before the puck slithered toward Richards in the scrum in front of the net. And somehow Richards, the 32-year-old veteran center who was brought to New York this offseason precisely for playoff moments like this, got the puck past Holtby and Caps defenseman John Carlson, who had slid behind the rookie goaltender when Holtby scrambled just out of the crease, and was now on his knees, hugging the left post -- only to see Richards slide the puck by him to the right.
"He's one of those guys that's just got a ton of confidence -- [but then] he's probably been a go-to guy all his life," Hagelin said with a smile about Richards, knowing full well that Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the playoffs' most valuable player, during the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup run.
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal finished off the Caps with a slap shot goal just 1:35 into overtime that sent the Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,200 running down the stairwells and out onto Eighth Avenue screaming about how instead of going down two games to three with the series heading back to Washington on Wednesday, the Rangers had an improbable 3-2 win and a chance to close this best-of-seven series.
For Richards' line, gouging out the game-tying score was a sweet bit of vindication. Both he and Marian Gaborik, who led the Rangers with 41 goals during the regular season, have had plenty of scoring chances in this series. But until Gaborik finally began to stir with a goal in the Rangers' last two games, and then Richards scored Monday night, the two of them had missed more opportunities than they cashed in on. And the Rangers were staring at some very uncomfortable realities.
Despite finishing the regular season as the Eastern Conference's top seed, the Rangers were in danger of falling to just 6-6 overall in these playoffs and down to their last shot against a Capitals team that had already upset defending Stanley Cup champion Boston in seven games in the opening round.
The Rangers were also creeping perilously close to seeing goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy, staring at what would be the worst playoff disappointment of a seven-year New York career -- this time because Holtby, the rookie goalkeeper at the other end of the ice, was often playing just as superbly as he was. Had the Rangers lost this game, Lundqvist probably would've heard a lot more about the glove save he didn't make on Carlson's power-play goal that put the Capitals ahead 2-1 in the third period.
"I think I needed that," Lundqvist admitted, referring to Richards' goal. "I was already thinking about the next game."
But Richards insisted he wasn't thinking that way. Not a chance.
"We've all played hockey long enough to know a lot of things can happen," he said, trying to explain why the Rangers never gave in to the growing pressure.
Goal scoring has been a problem for New York most of the playoffs. But the scores have been even harder to come by against this Washington team, which plays the same hard-working, shot-blocking, forechecking game the Rangers do, but has far more offensive weapons such as Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom to send at Lundqvist in waves.
In a nod to all of that, the Rangers tried to change up their offensive strategy for Game 5. They began the game intent on peppering Holtby with as many shots as possible, even when it meant taking a quick shot rather than more of the patient tic-tac-toe passing they usually prefer. And while the effort was admirable -- the Rangers already had a total of 26 shots through two periods, more than they had in all of Game 1 (14) or Game 4 (20) -- the score was still tied at 1 heading into the third, though the Caps had just 10 shots on goal themselves.
For the Rangers, who had to pull out Game 3 in triple OT, it's been that kind of series against the underdog Caps.
Defenseman Anton Stralman gave New York a 1-0 lead with 9:16 gone in the first period on a wrist shot he took from a sharp angle to Holtby's left.
The Caps had been outplayed for large swaths of the game, but tied it at 1 when Brooks Laich swooped in and pounced on a loose puck between the faceoff circles, then whistled it past Lundqvist from about 12 feet out midway through the second period. After Carlson made it 2-1 at 4:20 of the third, time was melting away, and the Garden crowd was growing restless.
Then Hagelin took that shot to the mouth and wiped the blood off his face at the Rangers' bench and stayed in the game.
Richards scored that improbable goal -- the latest the Rangers had ever scored a game-tying goal in the franchise's long history.
Then Staal sent the home crowd running for the exits happy and conducted postgame interviews wearing the stupid floppy felt hat the Rangers give each night to their hero of the game.
"At that moment, you're not even looking at the time on the clock -- you're just happy when the puck gets on the net or on your stick," Richards said. "You just feel like we're going to get a chance coming down the stretch."
And when you do?
"Someone's got to bury it," Richards said.
He and Staal did.
The Rangers escaped. And now the Rangers have new life.
"We just took a while to get it done," Richards laughed.
Game 5 was the sort of great escape a hockey team can ride for a long time.