And even the most optimistic New York Rangers fan couldn't have seen this one coming.
Brad Richards scored the unlikeliest of power-play goals with just 7.6 seconds left in regulation, and Marc Staal added another one on the second half of the advantage in overtime to lift New York to a stunning 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday night.
"The last minute was incredible," Staal said.
Just seconds away from a 3-2 series hole — and facing the prospect of having to win two straight to survive and advance — the Rangers somehow cured their ailing power play and rode it to one of the most thrilling wins in team history.
"We knew we had a power play going into overtime and we wanted to get one and be quick," Staal said. "That's what we ended up doing."
The defenceman made sure that Richards' tying goal wouldn't go to waste when he scored 1:35 into overtime.
"It's a kick in the gut when you lose because it happens so quickly, and it's pretty exciting when you win because it happens quick," New York coach John Tortorella said.
The Rangers overcame a 3-2 series deficit in the first round against Ottawa, just the second time in 18 tries they have pulled off the feat, and were looking at having to do it all over again. Now one win in the next two games will put New York in the conference finals for the first time since 1997.
With goalie Henrik Lundqvist pulled for an extra attacker, Washington's Joel Ward took a four-minute penalty for high-sticking Carl Hagelin with 21.3 seconds left. Richards tied it on the first half of the power play, and Staal won it with a drive that appeared to deflect off a Washington player before beating goalie Braden Holtby.
Ward was the first-round hero for the Capitals, scoring the winning goal in overtime in Game 7 to knock out the Boston Bruins. Now, he hopes he will have the chance to redeem himself.
"This definitely stings," he said. "It was a hard-fought battle. It's tough when you let the team down on a play like that."
But his coach and teammates raced to his defence, and tried to take the blame and spotlight away from him.
"It was an accident," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "Those are the breaks of hockey. It accidentally came up. It's just a hockey play.
"You don't overanalyze it. You just go play. We'll battle again like we did the whole series and the series before."
The top-seeded Rangers can advance to the Eastern Conference finals with a win Wednesday in Washington. If necessary, Game 7 would be back in New York on Saturday.
"Nobody thinks we are going to lose it easily," Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. "It's not over yet. We're going home to play at our house. We'll come back here."
With the crowd still buzzing over the shocking tying goal, a din that held up through the long intermission, John Mitchell won a faceoff in the Capitals' end to start the winning play. Staal corralled the puck at the right point, glided to the centre of the zone, and fired the drive that set off a wild celebration on the ice and in the seats.
"We just kept trying to come at them," Staal said. "It wasn't a set play or anything off the draw. Just a good clean draw, and guys went to the net, and (Holtby) couldn't see it."
The Rangers mobbed each other at centre ice as the crushed Capitals trudged toward the tunnel to their dressing room. Then, the New York players raised their sticks to the crowd as red, white and blue streamers cascaded down from the rooftop.
The celebration, that culminated in fireworks as the three stars of the game were announced, seemed almost inevitable after Richards tied it. After no success with traditional 5-on-4 power plays, the Rangers made the most of their 6-on-4 edge as Lundqvist watched from the bench.
"You could tell when games are getting tighter, more important, he plays better," Lundqvist said of Richards. "I think he likes the intensity in games like that. It just shows what type of player he really is."
Michael Del Zotto took a shot that hit traffic in front to the right of Holtby. Ryan Callahan took two or three hard whacks at the loose puck, but couldn't get it forward. Richards jammed his stick into the maze of legs and poked the puck past Holtby just before he was able to cover it with his glove.
John Carlson, who had given the Capitals a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal in the third period, couldn't keep the puck out, either, after he got in behind Holtby as a last line of defence.
"You have to believe you can do it," Lundqvist said of the comeback. "It was tough for us to get in front and create real good scoring chances, but we were shooting a lot and had a lot of energy. We definitely deserved this win. We worked so hard."
Anton Stralman staked the Rangers to a 1-0 lead during a dominant first period for New York, but Brooks Laich answered for the Capitals in the second.
Carlson then snapped the 1-1 tie 4:20 into the third with the goal that appeared to put the seventh-seeded Capitals on the brink of knocking out the top-seeded Rangers.
It would have marked the second straight game that Washington used a man-advantage goal from a defenceman to earn a victory, but instead the Rangers won their second of the series in overtime.
The Capitals, 0-5 in the playoffs when their opponent scores first, were fortunate to even be in position to win as they were outshot 38-18 overall by the Rangers.
"We have to put it behind us," Holtby said. "It's a tough loss, obviously. It's the way hockey goes sometimes."
Washington woke up a bit in the second period and got even, despite recording only six shots on Lundqvist. However, that was two more than the Capitals generated in the first.
The Rangers held a 26-10 edge in shots in the first 40 minutes, but had only a 1-1 tie to show for it heading into the tense third period.
The Capitals tied it in the second after gaining control of the puck following a faceoff in the Rangers' end. Ovechkin, who heard even more boos than usual from the Garden crowd, sent a pass from the side boards to the right of Lundqvist that bounced off Rangers forward Brian Boyle. The puck came right to Laich in the slot for a hard drive that beat Lundqvist inside the right post to make it 1-1 at 8:15.
New York had numerous chances to extend its lead or get back in front before Washington tied it, but the Rangers' power play continued to struggle and looked disorganized.
The Rangers had been 2 for 16 on the power play in the series before Ward's penalty changed everything.
Notes: Stralman scored his first two career NHL playoff goals — both on the power play — in the Rangers' first-round series win over Ottawa. ... Washington is 6-1 in the playoffs when it scores first. ... The Capitals are 3 for 16 on the power play in the series. ... The Rangers won Game 3 in triple overtime 2-1.