Ward Stuns Rangers In Game 1


This is not the way it was supposed to be.

The way it was supposed to be, the Rangers would be heading into Game 2 of the Metropolitan Division Finals on Saturday afternoonleading one game to zip.

Instead, while not exactly behind the 8 (as in Ovechkin) ball, the Blueshirts are feeling more than the usual pressure to avert a two-game losing streak at The Garden

For that they can thank — if such a thing is possible in the circumstances — Joel Ward, who previously devastated the Islanders — for his 2-1 game-winning score with less than two seconds left in the third period; 1.3 seconds to be exact.

The stunning winner was — not surprisingly — created after Alex Ovechkin seized a loose puck following a hard Washington hit by Nicklas Backstrom on Dan Boyle. Ovi wasted no time feeding the goalmouth-planted Ward who swiftly beat Henrik Lundqvist.

“I didn’t see the hit [on Boyle] but I tried to find the puck,” chortled Ovechkin, “and all I heard was Ward screaming in front and I tried to feed it to him.”

This unpleasant set of circumstances for the Rangers could be repeated on Saturday if Alain Vigneault’s stickhandlers fail to solve The Ovechkin Effect.

How did the guillotine so suddenly fall on the Rangers with so little time in the third period? Why was an offensive-minded defender such as Boyle on the ice with Ryan McDonagh. How did the Rangers’ coach see the winning goal?

“It was a hit,” said Vigneault, “and there were a couple of mistakes after it. And the puck ended up in the back of our net.”

Alain Vigneault explains what went wrong for the Rangers' on the Capitals' game-winning goal.

That was the end of the Blueshirts, but what about the beginning?

For starters, the Capitals’ captain thrust his team ahead, 1-0, with a first period power-play laser that thoroughly befuddled The King.

For finishers, Ovi demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that coach Barry Trotz has metamorphosed him into a creative passer-backchecker as well as a clutch playmaker.

Suddenly, Vigneault is faced with the challenge of finding offense. Only a late third-period goal by Jesper Fast put the Blueshirts on the board. But scoring is not the only issue for AV.

Playing without the injured pepper pot Mats Zuccarello, the coach inserted future Hall-of-Famer Martin St. Louis in his place. The Big Little Man was hardly noticeable for better or worse.

After a low scoring five-game series with Pittsburgh, the Rangers’ expectation — call it hope — was for beating the Caps with a goal bonanza.

What they got instead was a battle-hardened Washington sextet that threatens to make Saturday’s tilt a big-time challenge for the Blueshirts.

“At this time of year,” said St. Louis, “we have to shake off the loss. On Saturday we go back to work.”

That would have to fall into the category of understatement since a good part of the tilt saw the visitors out-fight the home club.

“Adjustments will be made,” said Derek Stepan, “and one of them will be shooting more pucks.”

That would help, considering that Caps goalie Braden Holtby made 31 saves and even got an assist on Ovechkin’s goal.

Completing his first season behind the Washington bench, Trotz has re-designed the D.C. sextet with more attention to defense.

His D was effective until Fast’s tying goal at 15:21 of the third and the game appeared certain to enter overtime.

Ovechkin started the final thrust by carrying the puck into the Rangers’ zone with the rubber skimming into the right corner where the Blueshirts converged on The Big Eight.

While the New Yorkers were unable to relieve him of the rubber, the hulking Russian beat the clock — and the Rangers — with a deft pass converted by the omnipresent Ward with 1.3 left in regulation.

“I didn’t know how much time was left,” Ward admitted, “but we were all high-fiving and dancing. So I figured that I beat the buzzer.”

Another Rangers challenge will be the Caps penalty-killing now 17 for 17 including the Isles series.

“We’re meshing well as a unit now,” said Washington defenseman John Carlson, “and playing with a lot of confidence. But all the credit has to go to our goalie.”

Out-goaled by Holtby, Lundqvist must come up bigger than BIG on Saturday.

But that’s not all.

“Our execution in the offensive zone needs to be better,” AV revealed. “That’s going to be one of our focuses on Saturday.”

That’s the blueprint. We’ll see about the execution.