New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi (5) goes for the puck against Washington Capitals right wing Joel Ward (42) with goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30)

Rangers hold off Capitals comeback to force Game 7

All of 40 seconds into Game 6, Chris Kreider scored for the New York Rangers. Did it again with all of 0.3 seconds left in the first period. And after the Rangers nearly let all of a three-goal lead slip away late, Henrik Lundqvist helped them hang on.

WASHINGTON — All of 40 seconds into Game 6, Chris Kreider scored for the New York Rangers. Did it again with all of 0.3 seconds left in the first period.

And after the Rangers nearly let all of a three-goal lead slip away late, Henrik Lundqvist helped them hang on.

Once so close to being out of the playoffs altogether, the Rangers are suddenly a Game 7 victory away from eliminating the Washington Capitals and returning to the Eastern Conference finals.

Kreider got things started with his goals, Rick Nash put his first of the series into the net 54 seconds into the third period, and Dan Boyle tacked on a score that turned out to be vital, helping the Rangers hold on to edge the Capitals 4-3 on Sunday night and even the second-round series at three games apiece.

“We went back on our heels a little bit, and they just kept pushing,” New York centre Derek Stepan said. “Luckily, we had four, because we needed all four of them.”

Sure did.

New York led 2-0 thanks to Kreider — the 24-year-old dynamo out of Boston College with 16 career playoff goals already, including four in this series — then 4-1 with less than 12 1/2 minutes left.

“We just can’t put ourselves in that hole,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said.

But Evgeny Kuznetsov and Joel Ward put the puck past Lundqvist less than 3 minutes apart to make it a one-goal game with nearly half a period to go.

“We’re relentless,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said.

So, too, are the Rangers.

The Presidents’ Trophy winners this season and Stanley Cup runners-up a year ago trailed 3-1 in this series and 1-0 with 101 seconds left in the third period of Game 5.

But that’s when Kreider scored to tie it, before Ryan McDonagh won it in overtime.

“We’ve been technically in our Game 7 (mindset) since we were down 3-1,” Boyle said.

After two days off, the teams will wrap things up Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden — a fitting finish for a matchup in which each of the first six games was decided by one goal.

“Probably not the path, when you’re up 3-1, that you want to take,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz conceded. “We’ve just got to go into sort of the lion’s den, if you will.”

The winner of Game 7 will face the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Montreal Canadiens next. Tampa Bay leads that conference semifinal series 3-2.

“We’re going to come back and win this series,” said three-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin, who has zero goals in the past four games. “We’re going to play our game and we’re going to come back and we’re going to play Montreal or Tampa.”

After Ward’s goal Sunday, New York called timeout. Most of the red-clad fans rose, many screaming “Let’s go, Caps!” and then mockingly singing Lundqvist’s last name.

But the Swedish goalie was solid the rest of the way, stopping Washington’s last four shots — including Ovechkin on a 1-on-1 — and surviving a late Capitals power play to finish with 42 saves. That’s a career high for Lundqvist in a playoff game that didn’t go to overtime.

“He was just a wall back there for us,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “He closed the door.”

This was the 13th consecutive playoff game involving the Rangers decided by one goal — all 11 this post-season, and two last year — the longest streak in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They also ended Washington’s five-game home playoff winning streak.

The Capitals hadn’t lost consecutive games in more than two months, but they tend to have trouble closing out post-season series.

And while what’s happened in the past does not guarantee anything in the present, the history of both teams certainly favours New York heading into Game 7.

In all previous series that the Capitals led 3-1, they were pushed to Game 7 four times — and they’ve gone 0-4.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have won nine consecutive home playoff games when facing elimination, and Lundqvist was the goalie each time.

“The game turned from them not having any life at all, to them just being all over us,” said Lundqvist, who became the 18th goalie with 50 playoff victories. “We found a way.”

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