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2011 stanley cup playoffs

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Rangers Loss

If you're the type who pays attention to such things, you'll know that the local tabloids don't give the back page to the Rangers very often. It takes a certain mix of an important game, a noteworthy outcome, and, let's be honest, an otherwise quiet night in sports. Well, the Rangers are on the back page of the Daily News this morning, and for all the wrong reasons: Last night's 4–3 double-overtime loss to Washington was both epic and crushing, swinging the momentum of this series toward the Capitals in a matter of just a couple of tense hours.

After a scoreless first, the Rangers played their best period of the playoffs — and maybe, given the circumstance, the entire season — in the second: Dan Girardi blocked shot after shot (and appeared to frustrate Alexander Ovechkin in the process), Ruslan Fedotenko's efforts turned into two assists, Henrik Lundqvist was solid in net, and the team's passing was as crisp as it's been in a long time. And it all paid off with three goals: one on an Artem Anisimov bank shot from behind the net, one on a Marian Gaborik slam dunk off a feed from Fedotenko, and then, improbably, another seven seconds later from Brandon Dubinsky, set up once again by Fedotenko.

By this point, the chants aimed at the Capitals coach had morphed from "Boudreau sucks" to "Can you hear us?" The momentum, which had begun to swing in the Rangers favor in Game 3, was squarely in their corner now. The Rangers scored three times, but they really could have scored four of five times if not for Michal Neuvirth. The Rangers, who hadn't lost a single damn game all season when leading after two periods, were twenty minutes away from holding serve at home and evening the series.

Then the third period happened. The Capitals, who'd bought into Bruce Boudreau's more defense-oriented game plan this year, returned to the style of play they'd used to score 318 goals last year, with defensemen joining rushes and so on. And within the first four minutes of the period, they struck twice: first following Alexander Semin's interception of a Ryan McDonagh pass, and again when a defensive breakdown left Marcus Johansson alone at the side of the net. By this point, it was hard not to think about the Kings' epic collapse after leading 4–0 the night before. And it was pretty much impossible once the Caps got the equalizer — Johansson's second goal of the game — at 12:07 of the period, just seconds after a Caps power play had ended. The Rangers' chances now were fewer and farther between — Gaborik had a good one from the slot at one point, but Neuvirth stopped it — and a late-ish power play, the result of a Boyd Gordon trip, couldn't convert. (On the night, the power play would go 0-for-7. For the series, it's now 1-for-18.)

So then came overtime, and it's at this point — when you're rooting for the team that's down in the series, the one that really needs to win — that all of the fun is sucked out of watching what any objective observer would tell you was a pretty exciting hockey game. You hold your breath on every Caps centering pass. You fight the urge to close your eyes every time Semin touches the puck, knowing that, somehow, no matter where he is inside the blue line, he's going to fire a rocket of a shot at the net. When Alexander Ovechkin skates in on a breakaway (pretty much a nightmare scenario when you play the Caps in overtime), you realize you're as helpless to stop it as the defensemen chasing him — the team's hopes and yours riding on Lundqvist's reflexes. When the Caps go on the power play — and the refs called only two penalties in overtime: a delay-of-game call on Derek Stepan and a too-many-men call on the Caps — you glance at the clock, wondering how it could move so slowly as the puck pinballs from stick to stick when the Caps have the power play, and so fast when it's the Rangers with the man advantage.

And then, as if you haven't been tortured enough — with the three-goal comeback, and the Ovechkin breakway, and the fear that at some point the Caps might shoot a puck right through Dan Girardi's shin, or that Marc Staal will just fall asleep right there on the bench out of sheer exhaustion — the Caps win the game, not because of a brilliant tic-tac-toe passing play, or a perfect home-run pass to spring Ovechkin, or because a defenseman joined an odd-man rush, but because of miscommunication in front of their own net, with Henrik Lundqvist going to dive on the puck just as Marian Gaborik was trying to play it. Jason Chimera — who, to his credit, was in the right place at the right time — will never score an easier goal. Double-overtime playoff games are not supposed to end like this.

The Rangers earned the "resilient" label this year, but they haven't had to bounce back from anything like this. They'll get two more days off and play in Washington Saturday, needing a win to stay alive and force a Game 6 at the Garden Monday. John Tortorella has talked about how momentum is the most important thing in a playoff series. His team had it, and then they lost it. Saturday, they'll need to get it back. They don't have much choice now.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images