Rangers take series lead in a thriller

Last time the Rangers had a chance to put an underdog on the ropes in a crucial Game 5 at home, New York dropped the ball, allowing the upset-minded Ottawa Senators to steal a win and force the East’s No. 1 seed to stage a furious comeback over the final two games of the series to advance to the second round.

When given an opportunity to right that wrong in Round 2 against the pesky Washington Capitals, the Rangers made their message loud and clear: Not this time. Not in our house.

The Rangers took a 3-2 series lead over the seventh-seeded Caps with a 3-2 overtime victory Monday night, and they did it in the most dramatic way possible, using a riveting, furious, late-game rally to steal the victory right out of Washington’s hands and turn the tide in a series that seemed to be slipping away.

Brad Richards’ desperate, game-tying goal with 6.6 seconds left in regulation incited pandemonium among an overwrought Madison Square Garden crowd and sent the game into overtime, when defenseman Marc Staal’s winner 1:35 in handed New York one of the most improbable playoff wins you’ll ever see.

“You dream about it as a kid growing up, scoring in overtime in the playoffs, and it’s pretty incredible,” Staal said, adorning the team’s Broadway Hat after the victory. “We certainly felt like we had them on the ropes after that tying goal, and we wanted to take that momentum into overtime and get one quick, and we did.”

And as the crowd went berserk and the streamers fell from the sky and the fireworks blasted off inside the legendary arena, you couldn’t help but feel like maybe this truly is a team of destiny. Maybe this is the squad that’s capable of delivering New York its first Stanley Cup since 1994.

“They’re all emotional,” the generally stoic Rangers head coach John Tortorella said of the overtime win. “It’s a kick in the gut when you lose them … and it’s pretty exciting when you win because it happens so quickly.”

After a back-and-forth 58 minutes in which the Rangers dominated everything but the scoreboard — they outshot the Caps 38-18 for the game — Tortorella pulled goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in exchange for an extra offensive attacker.

Then, in the play that may go down as the one that lost the series for Washington, Capitals right-winger Joel Ward — a player who had just 20 penalty minutes for the entire regular season, and one penalty since mid-February — was assessed a critical double-minor for high sticking with 22 seconds left the game, giving New York a two-man advantage during a frantic final exchange in the Washington offensive zone.

“It was an accident,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter lamented afterward. “That’s the breaks of the hockey game. They got a break.”

A Jay Beagle faceoff win gave the puck to defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who moved it down in front of the Washington net. There, Ryan Callahan pounded the puck off Braden Holtby’s right pad twice before the veteran Richards swooped in and tapped the tying goal past the Capitals’ greenhorn goaltender.

“You’re just out there whacking and banging around and trying to stay on your feet and get some sort of rebound,” Richards said. “Michael did a good job getting it down to the net . . . and we felt like if we get it down there, we might get something, and we did.”

The sight of the puck in the back of the net sparked riotous elation among the breathless Rangers fans, and many of them restlessly stayed on their feet through the intermission and into the overtime period.

“It’s awesome,” Callahan said. “They’re standing up, chanting ‘Let’s go Rangers.’ That fuels you; that makes you feel good. To be able to get that one for them and hear the Garden explode — I haven’t heard it that loud since I’ve been here.”

Ward’s double-minor then came into play again in overtime, as it allowed the Rangers to open the extra period with a 1:53 power play. And with 12 seconds left on the man-advantage, Staal made sure Richards’ late-game heroics weren’t for naught as he fired a slap shot from the point through a sea of bodies for the winner.

“I’ve been in some games where you tie it late,” Staal said, “but to tie it late, send it to overtime and get it right away, I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of that.”

It was almost fitting for Game 5 to end like it did, as nothing has been simple this postseason for the Rangers, who have had nine of their first 12 playoff games be decided by one goal, including four that went to OT.

They haven’t made it easy on themselves — no, New York never seems to do things according to plan — but with the momentum of a series, once again, hanging in the balance, the top-seeded Rangers prevailed.

The lesson to take from this, it seems, is that while things may not always go precisely the way the Rangers draw them up, they’ll continually find a way to come out on top, regardless of the path they take to get there.

“It’s the way we play,” Tortorella said. “You go play; you play as hard as you can. We play our style, and at the end of the day, we’ll see where we’re at.”

Right now, they’re in an enviable position, needing just one win over the final two games to advance. They’ll have their first chance Thursday in Washington to punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference finals.

“We’re not really expecting a breather,” Rangers center Brian Boyle said. “It’s the playoffs; it’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be tough and Game 6 they’re going to be better. They’re going to be coming flying, and it’s going to be their building. It’s a great feeling right now, but tomorrow we refocus and get ready to go.”

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner