Down 2-1 in a game between two desperate teams fighting to move up in the playoff race, the New York Rangers turned it on - and not a moment too soon.
The Rangers erupted for three goals in the final five minutes and climbed a couple of notches in the standings with Thursday's 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals.
"Very good comeback," said coach John Muckler, whose team won for the sixth time this season when trailing after two periods. "The team stuck together. We were in trouble there."
In a sometimes cautious, sometimes tense game with big implications, Adam Graves scored his 31st goal of the season with 3:32 to play for the winner. Mike Knuble had tied it 57 seconds earlier with his second goal of the period, and Niklas Sundstrom clinched the win one minute after Graves' goal.
"Tonight's game was emotion," Muckler said. "Everybody knew the importance of the game. It puts us in a much better spot. This is our playoff. We were successful tonight, but we've got a long ways to go and we're going to have to repeat what you saw tonight."
The victory moved the Rangers ahead of Montreal, even with Florida and within two points of eighth-place Boston in the Eastern Conference standings in the five-team race for the final playoff spot. Boston (62) leads the Rangers (60), Florida (60), Montreal (59) and Washington (57).
"It seems like all year whenever we were in this situation in the last 10-15 games, we were always the team that was losing and ending up at the bottom of the pile," said Knuble, who also asisted on Sundstrom's goal. "Maybe we're peaking a little. If we are peaking, it's the best time of the season to peak."
The Rangers, 3-0-1 since Wayne Gretzky was sidelined with a neck injury last week, now face another huge game at Boston on Sunday.
"You could say it's coincidental that Wayne's out and a few other guys are out and guys are stepping up and playing better," Knuble said. "But I don't know what it is. Maybe it's desperation."
As big as the win was for the Rangers, it was just as devastating for the defending conference champion Capitals, who led 1-0 going into the third period. Washington had been 19-0-2 when leading after two periods before Thursday.
"It's a killer," center Joe Juneau said. "If we had won, we would have had an advantage. Now they have a really big advantage over us. We shot ourselves in the head, basically."
It seemed the Capitals were in control after Peter Bondra scored his 30th goal of the season on a power play with 10:57 remaining to put the Caps ahead 2-1. Then the attack got conservative and complacent.
"Our defense was just too passive," Washington coach Ron Wilson said. "We allowed them too much space when normally we hadn't been doing that."
After a first period with no goals and no penalties, Sergei Gonchar scored a power-play goal - his league-leading 12th among NHL defensemen - at 15:39 of the second period. Knuble tied it two minutes into the third.
Calle Johansson surpassed Rod Langway for most games played (727) by a defenseman in Capitals history.
© 1999 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved