NEW YORK Maybe Dale Hunter was simply saving Alex Ovechkin for the right moment.
Maybe he was just resting him in the first period so that when the game was on the line his captain was at his very best.
Whatever the reasons, Ovechkin looked like a pinch-hitter swatting a walk-off homer when he ripped a snap shot past Henrik Lundqvist with 7 minutes, 27 seconds remaining in the third period to give the Capitals a hard-earned 3-2 win over the New York Rangers in front of a stunned crowd at Madison Square Garden.
The win evens the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinals at one game apiece, with Games 3 and 4 slated for Wednesday and Saturday at the Verizon Center.
The Capitals are following a similar script to the one they wrote in Round 1, when they followed an opening game loss in Boston with a victory. They are now 8-3 in their playoff history when following a Game 1 loss with a Game 2 victory and have won eight of the last nine playoff series in which that sequence occurred.
Ovechkins goal came with Brad Richards in the penalty box for holding. Nicklas Backstrom cleanly beat Brian Boyle in the offensive left circle and Ovechkin wristed the puck through a screen and behind Lundqvist for his first goal of the series.
As he celebrated, Ovechkin cupped his ear to the New York fans who had earlier rided him with cants of Ovi Sucks.
The Capitals tried milking a 2-1 lead for two full periods and it just didnt work.
A high-sticking penalty to Mike Knuble put the Rangers on the power play 6:02 into the third period and Ryan Callahan made them pay when he was credited with his third goal of the playoffs.
Michael Del Zotto ripped a shot toward Braden Holtby that deflected off the stick of defenseman John Carlson and bounced past Callahan and Holtby for the game-tying goal with 6:58 gone.
The Caps carried a 2-1 lead into the final period but everyone in the building had their eyes on Alex Ovechkin, who spent long stretches on the visitors bench.
Ovechkin saw just 3:33 of ice time in the second period and would have played about the same amount in the second period had he not been stuck out on the ice for an extended 2:32 shift that included two icings by the Capitals.
The two teams combined for more shots in the first two periods than they did in all of Game 1, evenly dividing 32 shots. But the Capitals stepped it up in the shot-blocking department, getting in the way of 17 shots.
Just as they had in Saturdays series opener, the Caps withstood an early push by the Rangers, who seemed to be targeting defenseman Mike Green with one punishing hit after another.
Green and defense partner Roman Hamrlik looked shaky in the first period but rookie goaltender Holtby kept the game scoreless, staying patient in his crease to stop rookie Chris Kreider on a breakway seconds before the Capitals went the other way to take a 1-0 lead on Mike Knubles second goal of the playoffs.
Knuble finished off a perfectly executed passing sequence in which Keith Aucoin and Joel Ward played catch with the puck on a rush, with Aucoin centering to Knuble for a tap-in at the 12:20 mark.
A glaring miscue by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist allowed the Capitals to make it 2-0 less than 5 minutes later on Jason Chimeras third goal of the post-season. Lundqvist went behind his net to settle the puck but Chimera beat him to it and centered the puck into the crease.
Matt Hendricks spun around with a shot between his legs that was stopped by Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman, who took a stick to the chin by a diving Lundqvist. The puck squirted out to Chimera, who poked it off Ryan McDonaghs skate and into the unguarded net.
The Caps were 42.4 seconds away from carrying that two-goal lead into the first intermission, but a bad clear by Troy Brouwer and a premature line change by Brooks Laich resulted in Brad Richards second goal of the series and fourth of the playoffs.
Richards snuck behind the Capitals defense and took a pass from Marian Gaborik to make it 2-1.
Quick hits: After practicing on a fourth line for two days, Alex Semin started the game on a second line with Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Chimera. Brian Boyle returned to the Rangers lineup after missing three games with a concussion. He replaced Steve Eminger, defenseman who played sparingly as a forward in Game 1.