Chris Kreider finally shoots, and he saves Rangers' season

NEW YORK -- The crowd was anxious, the clock was melting down, down, down, and the New York Rangers were less than two minutes from the end of their season.

They were two minutes from squandering a year in which they had clawed their way to the best record in the NHL and talked about wanting to take care of "unfinished business" after losing in the Stanley Cup finals a year ago to a team that pushed them around much like these Washington Capitals have done so far.

So when Rangers' third-year winger Chris Kreider -- one of the goats of their Game 4 loss that pushed them to the brink of playoff elimination Friday -- fired a one-timer off a pass from Derek Stepan, there was a moment of well, disbelief.

Way back in the first period, Krieder had blown a 3-on-1 rush in on Caps goaltender Braden Holtby so badly the Madison Square Garden crowd admonished Kreider with irritated chants of "Shoot the puck! Shoot the puck!" But this time Holtby flinched. The red lamp behind him started to spin. And Kreider went sliding across the ice on one knee and threw back his head and screamed.

"We're still breathing," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after Krieder's ice-breaking goal with 1:41 to play snapped a scoreless streak for the goal-starved Rangers and pushed Game 5 into overtime just in the nick of time.

Then Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh did the rest, beating Holtby again on the sort of goal that forced a Game 6 back in Washington on Sunday.

And from the way that Holtby described the play, it sounded as if one of those goals that would haunt any goaltender deep into the night, if only because of the helplessness Holtby felt once the Rangers' Jesper Fast started the game-ending play with a beautiful cross-ice feed onto Stepan's stick.

"It looked like he was going to shoot it, and I lost him a bit with the bodies in front," Holtby said. "I saw that he dropped it back and didn't know where it went.

"I heard it hit a stick. And that was it."

Of course, Fast and Stepan and McDonagh would have never had a chance to collaborate on that winning play that narrowed Washington's lead to 3-2 in this series if Kreider hadn't quit passing up shots and pushed the game into overtime first.

"We needed someone to step up," Stepan said.

No kidding. For all the talk that this series has been about how Holtby was outplaying his more decorated Rangers counterpart, Henrik Lundqvist, the truth is if the Rangers had lost this game and this series on this night, it would not have been because they lost the goaltending war. That has been razor close.

It would have been because the Rangers' forwards -- guys like Kreider and Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash -- haven't played nearly well enough for them to survive and advance.

Nash had 42 goals this season, but he has only one in these playoffs and zero in this series. Nobody wants to hear how he's doing the "little things," and he knows it.

St. Louis, whose play was starting to prompt whispers he should be dropped from the Rangers' top line alongside Derick Brassard and Nash, still hasn't scored a goal in this postseason, either. He had several fine chances again Friday, and again and again couldn't bury the puck. But at least he was near the net, taking hits, whacking, hacking, digging at the puck. Once, Holtby robbed him once with an astonishing glove save.

If it weren't for Brassard, who had the only two goals the Rangers scored in nearly 12 full periods before Kreider and then McDonagh finally beat Holtby on Friday night, the Rangers wouldn't have had any scoring at all in nearly four full games.

"But we were still confident on the bench," Kreider insisted.

And he said the Rangers stayed that way even when the Capitals' Curtis Glencross took advantage of Keith Yandle's decision to jump into the play on the Rangers' offensive end and scored on a breakaway. Lundqvist initially seemed to stop the shot, only to lose control of the puck as he was falling backward and see Glencross nudge it in at the 10:54 mark of the third period.

"I don't think it really sunk in that it could be a season-ending goal," Kreider said. "There wasn't time.

"It was just, 'Play.' "

The Rangers are getting used to living on the edge in the postseason. Fifteen of their last 16 playoff games have been decided by one goal. They're 3-0 during this 2015 run in overtimes.

And still, Kreider, like a lot of his teammates, admitted he had become conscious -- even a little frustrated -- at how the Capitals were blocking a lot of the Rangers shots before the puck even got to Holtby. Krieder also echoed what Vigneault and many of the other players had been saying for days: The Rangers -- who had the third-best offense in the NHL this season, remember -- were getting good looks. They really were.

They just weren't finding the net ... until Friday, when Holtby couldn't stop those shots he couldn't see.

Kreider was asked afterward if it was a "relief" to see a puck finally go in the net. He smiled and admitted, "A little bit."

Like the other Rangers, he's not ready to go home to another summer of could-have-beens and dreary talk of squandered opportunities.

The Rangers know they got to last year's final by digging out of the same 1-3 series hole they faced last night. But that run wasn't expected, as this one is.

Losing in the second round this postseason would not only be an abject disappointment. They would have to ask themselves this: If they can't win a Cup this year, a year they had the most points in the league, a year when they were considered the favorites and Lundqvist remains in his prime, then when?

"I think we were confident that something was going to break eventually," Kreider said.

Then the kid forward who wouldn't shoot enough scratched his head a little and sighed.

"I'm just happy to be able to play more hockey," Krieder said.