NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers must've forgotten Monday's game had an unusually late 7:30 p.m. start time, because they didn't show up for the first 30 minutes against the Boston Bruins.
Fighting and clawing for a playoff spot in the final week of the season, the Rangers trailed 3-0 midway through the second period and were showing none of the necessary desperation or effort required to compete with the Bruins. Fans at Madison Square Garden were lustily booing their team after Chris Kelly's goal at 10:32 gave the Bruins what seemed to be an insurmountable three-goal lead.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a crushing loss for the Rangers -- they showed up fashionably late.
Vinny Prospal scored twice in the second period to cut the lead to one, setting the stage for two goals in 51 seconds from Brandon Dubinsky and Michael Sauer late in the third period that lifted the Rangers a potentially season-changing, come-from-behind 5-3 victory in front of a raucous, capacity crowd of 18,200.
Derek Stepan jumped into the delirious Rangers bench after tacking on an empty-net goal with 52.2 seconds remaining that salted away a win that vaulted the Rangers into a tie for sixth in the East with the Montreal Canadiens.
What a difference a half-hour makes.
"That was unbelievable," said Sauer, who scored the winner with 2:57 left in regulation. "I never scored a goal and it got that loud. The boys were excited and the fans went nuts. We got the two points and that's what it's all about."
"It gives you goose bumps," said Dubinsky, who tied the game with 3:48 remaining. "It's a feeling you can't describe. We fought so hard. We needed these points and that part of it makes it more emotional. We want to keep ourselves in the driver's seat."
The Rangers control their own destiny, needing to either earn three points or have the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes leave three points on the table in their final three games or a combination of the two to clinch a playoff berth. The Rangers have two games remaining, both at home, against the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday and the New Jersey Devils on Saturday afternoon.
Carolina has three games remaining -- at home Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings, at Atlanta on Friday and home against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
Considering the first half of Monday's game against the Bruins, it's amazing the Rangers are thinking about possibly earning the No. 6 seed and not how close they are to missing the postseason for a second straight season.
The Bruins controlled everything during the first period. They outshot the Rangers 19-5 during the first 20 minutes and held a 2-0 lead behind goals by Daniel Paille and Nathan Horton. Both goals were the result of poor coverage by the Rangers in their own zone.
The early part of the second period was more of the same. The Rangers inexplicably had four players trapped in the Bruins zone on a simple breakout, leading to Kelly converting on a 2-on-1 rush with a wrister than goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said he misplayed and thought was a "dagger."
Little did he know, the Rangers were on the verge of their biggest victory of the season.
"It's amazing to see how the guys kept working," said Lundqvist, who made 27 saves. "We responded in a big way when we needed it most. Big credit to all the guys who kept working hard."
The foundation for the comeback was laid by Prospal, who scored 1:02 after the Bruins grabbed the three-goal lead. He scored again with 1:34 left in the second period to send the Rangers into the locker room to an ovation from the once-angry crowd.
Rangers coach John Tortorella talked about the energy the 36-year-old Prospal gave the youthful Rangers with his timely goals, both of which were set up by Wojtek Wolski.
"He has the emotion of a young kid," Tortorella said. "Just him being in the room, the way he practices; it is good for the young kids because he is full of enthusiasm."
Despite the boost, the Rangers weren't showing many signs of life during the third period. Their power play failed to capitalize when Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg was called for tripping in the first minute of the period and went 0-for-4 overall.
But as the Rangers have done all season, they never folded when the odds were against them. Dubinsky got lost behind the Bruins defense and Ryan Callahan found him with a gorgeous spinning backhander to set up the tying goal.
Before the fans could get back in their seats, Marian Gaborik fired a spinning backhand pass of his own. This one found Sauer, who fired a shot that barely squeezed through the pads of goaltender Tim Thomas and just across the goal line to put the Rangers ahead for good.
"We have been this way all year long," Tortorella said. "We haven't played a lot of bad games. We have had a few along the way. I couldn't be happier for them as far as they stayed with it. The building was getting pretty ugly early. I couldn't be happier for them right now."
"At this stage of the season, you hope it's a real good lesson that we learned tonight," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, whose team is four points behind the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers in the chase for the top spot in the East. "If you don't want to respect the game plan for 60 minutes, those things are going to happen."
"I am going to remember this one for the rest of my life," Rangers forward Brian Boyle said. "This was fun."