NEW YORK — Facing the prospect of getting swept out of the NHL Eastern Conference semifinals by the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers battled back with the help of their home ice — but, not in the way you might think.
Taking full advantage of a couple of big-time Boston blunders at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, New York rallied from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2, to win, 4-3, on a goal by left winger Chris Kreider (one goal, two hits), 7:03 into overtime, to force a Game 5 in Boston, on Saturday evening.
Already down 3-0 in the series and facing elimination, the sixth-seeded Rangers trailed the fourth-seeded Bruins, 2-0, nearing the midpoint of the second period, when left winger Carl Hagelin (one goal, one hit, one takeaway) slid a soft backhander toward the Boston net from 18 feet away that any professional goaltender who remained upright, would stop in his sleep.
But, something unexpectedly and suddenly went wrong for goalie Tuukka Rask (28 saves, four goals).
“I just took a step to the side in what I think probably, was a skate mark or something,” Rask said. “My skate dug in. That’s what it felt like. I lost my balance, and the rest was history… it happens to me twice a year in practice, maybe.”
Rask embarrassingly fell on his backside while unsuccessfully attempting to use his goal stick to stop the gliding puck as it moved into the net for New York’s first goal of the game, a score that cut Boston’s lead in half, with 11:21 left in the second period.
After he fell, Rask’s shin pad was in the way of his stick, and he became defenseless against the slow-moving puck. “I tried to whack it away, and it was just awful,” he said.
Everything changed from there.
As a quiet and depressed Garden crowd got involved in the game, a lifeless Rangers squad (outshot 40-32) that managed only six shots on net before Hagelin’s goal, quickly awakened and maintained a much higher energy level for the remainder of the contest.
Hagelin’s score came just 58 seconds after the Bruins went up 2-0 on their second power play goal of the night.
Following a scoreless first period in which Boston took the game’s first seven shots and 12 of the contest’s 16 shots in the frame, right winger Nathan Horton (one goal, one assist, two hits, two takeaways) put a 14-foot wrist shot past goalie Henrik Lundqvist (37 saves, three goals), from the left circle, to break a scoreless tie, 4:39 into the second period.
Norton’s man-advantage goal was set up by an interference penalty on center Kris Newbury (four hits, two penalty minutes), who replaced underachieving star Brad Richards (healthy scratch).
Despite benching Richards, head coach John Tortorella made it perfectly clear that Richards shouldn’t be blamed for his team’s earlier offensive struggles during the postseason, and over much of the lockout-induced, shortened regular season.
“I want to make sure you know that Brad Richards is a hell of a hockey player,” Tortorella told the media. “I need to make decisions about what I feel is right for our team to win tonight’s game, and that is why I made that decision. This is a Conn Smythe winner… a guy that I love as a person and a player, but… this is my decision and I made it for the hockey club.”
Just 1:25 after Horton’s goal, another interference call, this time, on defenseman Michael Del Zotto (two hits, two penalty minutes), allowed defenseman Torey Krug (one goal, two blocked shots, one hit) to blast a slapshot up and to Lundqvist’s left, from just inside the blue line, to increase the Bruins’ lead to 2-0.
Boston finished the night 2-for-4 on the power play, and until New York later ended a string of 23 consecutive scoreless power plays of their own, the Bruins, after their first three man-advantage chances in the game, had as many power play goals as the Rangers had in their first 41 such chances throughout this year’s playoffs.
Early in the third period, New York tied the game by once again, getting help from a mistake by Rask, who played a puck behind the net, before very casually getting back into position.
Center Derek Stepan (one goal, one assist, one hit, two takeaways) went behind the net to put pressure on defenseman Zdeno Chara (one assist, five blocks, two hits, one takeaway), who coughed up the puck to Stepan.
“I wasn’t aware he was behind me,” Chara admitted.
In one motion, Stepan stole the puck and wrapped it around and into a half-empty net that was left poorly attended by a lax Rask — even though head coach Claude Julien chose to put all of the blame for the play on Chara.
“I think Tukka did what he had to do, but Chara just got stripped.” Julien also came to Chara’s defense though, saying, “He repairs a lot more [defensive issues] for every one he gives up [like the one to Stepan].”
Acknowledging the fact that Boston gave New York two goals it probably shouldn’t have had without his mistakes, Rask said, “We gave them a couple of gifts, and that costs us energy… and the game.”
Julien also called the scores “gift goals” and Tortorella, with a short laugh, said, “It gave us some life. It’s funny how it works, huh?”
Although Lundqvist allowed three goals, Tortorella also pointed out that his star goalie made plenty of tough saves to keep the Rangers in the game. “Henk was outstanding,” he said.
Still, Lundqvist gave up a go-ahead goal when center Tyler Seguin (one goal, one assists) scored on a wrist shot from nine feet away, to regain a 3-2 edge for the Bruins with 11:54 left in regulation.
Again though, a lack of focus hurt Boston when the Bruins were called for having too many men on the ice, just 49 seconds after Seguin’s goal.
That opportunity wasn’t lost on what had been a dormant New York power play, as center Brian Boyle (one goal two hits) took a great pass through traffic from the right corner by Stepan, and tied the game, 3-3, on a 17-foot snapshot, with exactly halfway through the third period.
Play later opened up significantly, with a quick pace and scoring chances galore on both sides as overtime began. The Rangers initially had the majority of those, before the Bruins started to apply a barrage of pressure on Lundqvist, who repeatedly came up huge to keep New York’s season alive.
Then, came the play that would extend the series.
On a breakaway, left winger Rick Nash (on assist, three hits) streaked up the right side, and quickly put on the brakes, before making a perfect crossing pass to Kreider, a Massachusetts native, who played for Boston College.
Moving toward the net, Kreider deflected Nash’s pass inside the left post, to end the game against his hometown team.
“It [was] so surreal,” Kreider said of the goal. “It’s not something that can really be explained. It’s something that just has to be felt. But, it was awesome and I’m just excited to give [my teammates] an opportunity to play another game.”
On that, Tortorella said, “There shouldn’t be any pressure [on us]. We should have fun with this, and [not] think about what [we] have to climb, [but only] about the next game.”
If New York can win that one, the series would come back to MSG for a Game 6.
Of course, Boston will try to avoid that at home, and put to rest any thoughts of allowing the Rangers to become only the fourth NHL team to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series.
The Bruins, with Julien, and many current Boston players, were one of the very few clubs to blow that kind of a lead, when they lost in seven games to Philadelphia, in the 2010 Eastern semifinals, one year before they won the Stanley Cup.
“There’s no panic here,” Julien insisted. “Had we been outworked… we would be talking differently… but, we didn’t get outworked… we [just] have to go back home and play a better game.”
The Rangers’ win was their first in four overtime contests, and the Bruins’ first loss in the same number of extra-session games in the 2013 playoffs.
The puck will drop for Game 5 on Saturday, at 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time.