WASHINGTON -- The New York Rangers are making things very, very tough on themselves.
Squandering the chance to close out the series against the Washington Capitals in Game 6, New York dropped a 2-1 decision to Washington on Wednesday and now face a daunting Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
Twice this series, the Rangers have had the chance to drop the hammer after exultant, inspiring wins. Twice they have failed to do so.
Following a grueling, gut-check victory in Game 3's triple-overtime stunner, the Rangers flubbed the chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead three days later and handed momentum right back to the Capitals in Game 4.
The Rangers wrested control once again with an epic late-game comeback in Game 5's 3-2 OT win on Monday, but couldn't carry the momentum over into what was a potential series-clinching match Wednesday.
Unable to score a goal until a deflected puck off John Carlson's back beat rookie goaltender Braden Holtby with less than a minute remaining, the Rangers wasted a strong 21-save effort from Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist.
"It felt like we were pretty far from where we have to be to win a game like this," Lundqvist said. "It felt like we were not really close until the last 20 seconds."
Facing elimination, the Capitals came out pucks blazing in the first period, sending the Verizon Center into tremors on Alex Ovechkin's power-play goal less than two minutes into play.
With defenseman Anton Stralman in the box for tripping, the Rangers inexplicably abandoned Ovechkin in the most dangerous area of the ice.
Tallying his 30th career playoff goal, the Russian superstar one-timed the puck from the high slot to beat Lundqvist high-glove at 1:28.
"He's not the right guy for us to leave alone in the slot like that,"
In a series that has seen so few decisive leads and insurmountable deficits, the Rangers had ample opportunity to dig themselves out of a hole.
But their best chance -- a four-minute power-play in the second after Jeff Halpern's high-sticking double-minor -- turned out to be an epic failure. The red-washed crowd was absolutely deafening after the Caps' successful penalty kill.
"Sucked," coach John Tortorella said, describing the sequence in which the unit managed only three shots on goal. "It kills you. Sucked."
Although the power-play delivered two stunning goals in a span of 1:43 to boost the Rangers past the Capitals in Game 5, they couldn't cash in on any of five man-up opportunities Wednesday.
The Rangers captured Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division titles in spite of their power-play during the regular season, and their Achilles heel has resurfaced once again during the playoffs.
The puck movement was there, but the shots were not. The Rangers didn't get enough pucks through to pressure Holtby or generate second and third chances.
That might not be a deal-breaker in a wide-open set between two offensive-minded teams, but this series is anything but. Each team's wins have come down to mere shifts, single mistakes, slim margins.
Neither team gives up much, so no opportunity can be wasted.
"We can't get frustrated. They play a hard style of game. They clog the middle, they block a lot of shots," defenseman Dan Girardi explained. "We've got to keep trying to get pucks through, get traffic in front. If we keep shooting, [the puck] is gonna go in. They just came out really hard and I thought the effort was there for the most part, but at times wasn't where it needed to be."
Both teams have faced a Game 7 already in their respective quarterfinal match-ups and both found a way to advance.
Only one team will emerge Saturday, and the pressure is on the Rangers.
They've put themselves in that position.
"We all feel we can do better," Lundqvist said. "We have to do better."