NEW YORK — After being held to one goal while losing the first two games of their opening round series in Washington, the Rangers went home and got an emotional boost from the return of defenseman Marc Staal, who had not played since March 5 because of a brutal eye injury he suffered when he took a slap shot to the face and went down in a writhing heap. Staal, who replaced Steve Eminger in the lineup, was paired with Anton Stralman and tested on his second shift when Capitals forward Troy Brouwer plowed him into the sideboards. Staal emerged unhurt and the Rangers went on to snap a long scoring funk, get their power play back on track and hold off the Capitals for a crucial 4-3 win. The Rangers’ Game 3 victory cut the Capitals’ series lead to 2-1.
Here are some more thoughts and observations from the game:
• In all, Staal played 17:17 over 21 shifts. “I thought I’d be more nervous,” he said after the game. “The excitement of the game really builds your adrenaline.” It marked the second time in his career that he has come back from a major injury. He missed the first half of the 2011-12 season because of a concussion and returned for the Winter Classic, playing reduced minutes on the team’s third defense pair for the first few games. That’s a luxury that Rangers coach John Tortorella felt he didn’t have this time. “Once we knew he’d be in there, he was going in the top four,” Tortorella said. “He’s so well respected, it really helps the room.”
• Nicklas Backstrom earned full points on Washington’s first goal. After one-handing the puck away from Stralman behind the New York goal, Backstrom managed to get it to John Erskine at the left point and then head to the slot. Erskine swung the pass to the right side to John Carlson, who fired high toward the net where Backstrom raised his stick and tipped the shot between Henrik Lundqvist’s pads. Officials reviewed the goal, decided that Backstrom’s stick wasn’t too high, and allowed the tally to stand.
• When Brian Boyle scored at 12:50 of the first period, it was New York’s first goal since the opening period of Game 1 — a span of 124:06.
• The Rangers continue to try to find ways to get Rick Nash going on the power play. Nash started at least one shift on the left side, right side and at the point during New York’s six opportunities. After being held scoreless by the Capitals’ penalty-kill during the first two games in Washington, the Blueshirts finally broke through on their fourth man-advantage situation of the night, but it was Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard connected for the goal. From the right-side boards, Zuccarello found Brassard at the top of the slot and the Rangers went ahead, 2-1, at 1:23 of the second period. “The PK ate up a lot of minutes and we couldn’t get the rhythm of the guys with the rotations you want,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said after the game.
• Oates gave some extra time to Alex Ovechkin, who was held to only two shots. “We doubled him up on the fourth line, because I just wanted to get him some ice.” In all, Ovechkin took 21 shifts in 22:07 of ice time, but none on the penalty kill.
• The Caps tied the score, 2-2, thanks to some great work by Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera. The two forwards overworked New York’s defense and eventually drew all five Rangers to the left side of the ice, leaving defenseman Mike Green wide open at the right point. Why cover Mike Green? The man only scored 31 goals in 2008-09. He was left with ample time to settle the bouncing puck, look up and pick the top corner against Lundqvist.
• Good work by New York’s fourth line to produce a go-ahead goal three 2:53 into the third period. Seconds after Ovechkin crashed the net, knocking Lundqvist over, the Rangers went on the offensive. Brassard, who was named first star for his goal and two assists, won the puck behind the Washington net and fed Arron Asham in front for the conversion, making the score 3-2. Asham was acquired by the Rangers last off-season to provide a physical presence, and he was added to the lineup for Game 3 when forward Ryane Clowe was unable to go.
• The Capitals’ fourth line answered four minutes later. Matt Hendricks, one of the league’s top centers on face-offs, won a draw from Brian Boyle back to defenseman Jack Hillen. It was a rare loss in the circle for Boyle, who won 14 of 21 face-offs on the night. Hillen then snapped a soft shot through a four-player screen that dribbled into the far corner, behind Lundqvist, who didn’t react until after the puck was behind him. Jay Beagle was credited with the score.
• All five Rangers touched the puck on Derek Stepan’s winning goal at 13:35 of the third period, after Ryan McDonagh first kept it in at the blueline. The play ended when Nash threw a hard centering pass at the Caps’ net from the right corner. Stepan got his stick on it and deflected it past Braden Holtby. Stepan was one of New York’s most improved players during the regular season he and led the Rangers in assists (26), points (44) and plus-minus rating (+25). “I probably did the least amount of work of anybody on that play,” Stepan said afterward. “I just put my stick down and Nasher bounced it off me.”
• New York was the NHL’s least penalized team during the regular season, with just 183 and 9.2 PIM per game, but the Rangers turned the evening into a white-knuckler by giving the Capitals’ league-beat power play an opportunity to tie the score in the closing minutes when Brad Richards was whistled for slashing with 1:54 to play. That allowed Washington to pull Holtby for a two-man advantage that lasted nearly two minutes. New York packed in its defense and forced Washington to over-pass for much of that time. “They did a really good job of protecting Lundqvist,” Oates said. “It’s a little like a five-on-three. Our guys are such perfectionists and the ice is so bad at that point that we don’t want to throw the puck away. Sometimes you just have to shoot.”
• Ironic twist: When Derek Dorsett appeared in his first game for New York earlier in this series, he became the 12th Ranger to make his debut wit the team in the playoffs. Doug Weight, Tony Amonte and Mike Richter aree among them. One other notable name on that list is George McPhee, who is now the GM of the Capitals.