NEW YORK - The fedora lay askew on Marc Staal’s head, but making fashion statement late Monday night was about the last thing on the mind of the New York Rangers defenceman.
No, it was the thought that Staal, wearing the black Broadway Hat that the Rangers award to a player after every victory, had just put his team within a win of the Eastern Conference final.
Staal’s shot from the point during overtime went off Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich, but found its way to the back of the net behind goaltender Braden Holtby, giving the Rangers a 3-2 win and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“I saw it deflect a little bit and then I saw just the whole right side of the net open,” Staal said. “It was a pretty incredible feeling.
“I have been in some games where you tie it late, but to do that and send it to overtime and get it right away, I have never been a part of that.”
It was not a goal that Staal could have imagined scoring a few months ago. He missed the first 36 games of the regular season with a concussion and didn’t play his first game until January.
“It’s a tough situation,” Staal’s teammate, Brad Richards, said. “No one understands that injury unless you have gone through it. I have, and I didn’t miss half a season. The benefit of the doubt goes to him all the time, and he has gotten nothing but better. He’s enjoying the fresh start in the playoffs.”
That Staal even had an opportunity to score at 1:35 of the extra period wouldn’t have been believed by the raucous crowd at Madison Square Garden earlier in the night.
The Rangers had done just about everything right, controlling the play and outshooting the Capitals by a wide margin through the game. But they had been horrible on the man advantage, failing to register a shot on goal in three power plays.
But so much can happen in the playoffs with one little nudge of momentum, and that’s all the Rangers needed.
Capitals forward Joel Ward, with 22 seconds left in regulation and his team leading 2-1, got his stick in the face of Carl Hagelin and was assessed a double-minor penalty for high-sticking.
Ward watched in disbelief as Richards jammed the puck from under Holtby and past defenceman John Carlson, who was hugging the post, into the net with 6.6 seconds remaining in regulation.
That disbelief turned to horror when Staal stepped off the boards in overtime. After teammate John Mitchell beat Matt Hendricks on a draw, Staal wired a shot into the net.
“It was an accident,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said of Ward's penalty. “It was a high stick. That’s the breaks of the hockey game. They got a break.”
The Rangers, who finished the night with a 38-18 lead in shots, had a 1-0 lead in the first period after a goal by defenceman Anton Stralman. They dominated in the first, firing a team-record 17 shots, the most they have had in any period in any playoff game, to the Capitals’ four.
But the Capitals evened things up in the second when Laich used a low shot to beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The visitors then took their first lead of the evening at 4:20 of the third when Carlson scored on a power play.
Until Ward, who scored the series-clinching goal in the first-round against the Boston Bruins, took that careless penalty, the Caps looked like they were going to outlast the clock.
The No. 1-seeded Rangers saved their power-play heroics until they were absolutely needed. Truth is, however, they were the better team and deserved to win.
“I think the boys are feeling really good about themselves,” Mitchell said. “We don’t want to feel too good, but I think the momentum will carry on (to Game 6).”