NEW YORK – Henrik Lundqvist had his teammates digging deep to describe his performance that put the New York Rangers on the verge of advancing in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third straight year.
“He’s like Tina Turner,” forward Brandon Dubinsky said, “He’s ‘Simply the Best.”‘ Lundqvist tied a career playoff high with 38 saves – half of them in the second period – and the seventh-seeded Rangers put the Washington Capitals on the brink of elimination with a 2-1 victory Wednesday night.
Lundqvist, who posted a 1-0 shutout win in Game 2, was on top of his game as the Capitals controlled play from the second period to the end – outshooting New York 39-21. But it’s the Rangers who hold a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“He’s amazing, he’s our heartbeat, and he gives everyone confidence that is playing in front of him,” said defenceman Paul Mara, who staked the Rangers to a 1-0 lead in the first period. “He’s awesome. We love him. He’s the king.”
Mara snapped the Rangers’ scoring drought at 126 minutes 11 seconds with 6:05 left in the opening period, scoring just the second goal against Simeon Varlamov, the 20-year-old rookie who has stopped 75 of 78 shots since taking over for Jose Theodore after New York’s 4-3 win in Game 1.
Chris Drury shook off an injury enough to add his first goal of the series. It turned out to be his 17th post-season winner.
“He is an easy guy to pull for,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “He is an important guy in the locker room. He is much healthier, improving the last couple of days. I think he has things figured out.”
Varlamov got Washington back into the series with a 4-0 win Monday night, after the Rangers posted a pair of road wins, but now the Capitals – the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference – could be out of the playoffs Friday night when they host Game 5.
“It’s so important to bounce back with a good game when we struggled a little bit the last game,” Lundqvist said. “The way we responded is perfect.”
Washington erased a 3-1 hole against Philadelphia in the first round last year, before falling in overtime of Game 7.
“It’s not done yet,” said Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, who scored his first goal of the series. “We were in this situation last year and we came back. We got that experience and it was good experience. We know how to come back.”
Ovechkin’s goal wasn’t enough even with Washington having two late power plays created by Sean Avery’s undisciplined play.
Avery gave the Capitals opportunities to tie it – first by bloodying defenceman Milan Jurcina behind the net with a shot to the face with 9:39 left and then high-sticking Brian Pothier with 3:06 remaining.
“He runs our guy and it’s a blatant high stick,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He plays hard. Sometimes he plays too hard.”
The Capitals’ potent power play went 0-for-6 and is 4-for-22 in the series.
“It seems like we are throwing everything at him and he’s making great saves,” defenceman Mike Green said about Lundqvist. “They’re playing well, but the good thing is that it’s not over yet.
“We have one of the best power plays. We have no excuse. We need to be better.”
Ovechkin, who screamed at his teammates on the bench before the third period, cut the Capitals’ deficit to 2-1 early in the final frame and nearly tied it twice. The first try was denied by the post during a power play, and then he was turned aside when Lundqvist made a reaching glove save with 5:13 left.
Lundqvist kept the Rangers in it during the second, when the Capitals held a 19-5 shots advantage but fell further behind.
Taking the challenge to step up from Tortorella to his top players, captain Drury made it 2-0 at 2:23 when he followed a rebound of his shot and scored.
Drury, nursing what is believed to be a hand or wrist injury that raised fears he could be out of the lineup for the second time this series, flipped a soft shot on goal from the left-wing boards that Varlamov bobbled out of his glove. Lauri Korpikoski nudged it to Drury for his 47th NHL playoff goal.
Lundqvist did the rest, especially during a power play when Washington whistled four shots in on him and had several others blocked in front. New York could not get the puck out of its zone and gave up two more drives after Michal Rozsival got out of the box.
The Rangers finally iced the puck, forcing Tortorella to use his timeout to give his exhausted penalty-killers a breather.
Lundqvist’s most dramatic save came against onrushing forward Alexander Semin, who launched a rising drive that was snared at full extension by Lundqvist before the puck found the top right corner.
It brought the towel-waving crowd to its feet with thunderous chants of “Hen-rik! Hen-rik!”
The Rangers went 12:36 between shots in the second period and carried their 2-0 edge into the third.
Ovechkin turned the mood inside Madison Square Garden from celebratory to panic when he rifled a slap shot off the crossbar and into the net at 2:13 of the third period. It was the first goal of the series on the 32nd shot by Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 56 regular-season goals.
Mara gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead when he fired a shot from the left point, after Brandon Dubinsky’s faceoff win, that clipped Capitals defenceman John Erskine and bounded past Varlamov.
Notes: The Capitals overcame a 3-1 series deficit once in their history, against Philadelphia in the 1988 Patrick Division semifinals. They have never won a series after trailing 2-0. The Rangers have never lost a series after leading 3-1.