Right winger Justin Williams put the Los Angeles Kings into the Stanley Cup Final by applying pressure and setting up his teammate for an overtime game-winner on Sunday night.
Three nights later, Williams was the the beneficiary of a similar push and tooke care of the game-winning goal himself, as the Cup Final began.
After the Kings spotted the visiting New York Rangers a 2-0 first-period lead — just as they had before beating the Chicago Blackhawks in extra time, during Game 7 of the Western Conference finals — Williams beat goaltender Henrik Lundqvist 4:36 into overtime, to give Los Angeles a 3-2 win at the Staples Center.
Against Chicago, Williams got hold of a loose puck, swung around the net and passed out to the point, where Alec Martinez shot and scored to have Los Angeles meet New York for the 2014 NHL title.
This time, it was center Mike Richards who kept a puck in that defenseman Dan Girardi couldn’t clear from one knee, before Richards found Williams, who from the slot, put home his eighth goal of the playoffs and his second game-winner of the postseason (after he only had one such goal in the regular season).
“The puck bounced over Dan’s stick,” said head coach Alain Vignealut. “It was an unlucky bounce.”
Williams’ score capped a record 14th time that a team in this year’s NHL playoffs won after trailing by multiple goals. The Kings are responsible for the last two of those instances and three overall.
Los Angeles held a 7-3 shot advantage less than seven minutes into the game before things evened out and New York struck quickly on a pair of breakaways.
Following a great stop by goaltender Jonathan Quick (25 saves) on right winger Martin St. Louis at the 10:48 mark of the opening period, left winger Benoit Pouliot stole the puck at the Rangers’ blue line from defenseman Drew Doughty and raced all alone for an unassisted goal that beat Quick low and to his right, to put New York up, 1-0, with 6:39 left in the period. It was Pouliot’s fourth goal of the playoffs, but his first in the last 13th games.
Just 1:42 later, the Rangers grabbed a 2-0 lead on a shorthanded goal by left winger Carl Hagelin, after assists by defenseman Ryan McDonagh and center Brian Boyle, who passed from along the boards, ahead to the speedy Hagelin.
One-on-one, Quick stopped Hagelin, but as Hagelin skated by the net, the puck ricocheted off of Quick, then off of the skate of defenseman Slava Voynov, and into an unprotected net.
Just 2:30 after that, Los Angeles its deficit in half as center Jeff Carter won a battle behind the net and to Lindqvist’s right. Carter passed to left winger Kyle Clifford, who from a difficult angle, was able to lift the puck over Lundqvist’s left shoulder and into the upper right corner of the net.
New York didn’t threaten much thereafter as the Kings often took possession of the puck.
Williams and Clifford assisted on a wrist shot by Doughty, who used some excellent stick work before reedming himself for his mistake on Pouliot’s goal, with a shot that tied the game, 2-2, with 13:24 left in the second period.
After holding a slim 22-21 edge in shots through two periods, the Rangers were dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard during a scoreless third period.
Los Angeles took the first 14 shots of the frame, and finished the period outshooting New York, 20-3, as the Rangers went the first 11:42 of the stanza without a shot on net.
“I thought it was a hard-fought first two periods,” Vugneault said. “I’m not quite sure what happened in the third period.”
Vigneault, however, had great praise for Lundqvist, who faced 43 shots, the most he has seen through the Rangers’ 21 games during this year’s playoffs.
“He was the reason we went to overtime,” Vigneault said.
Lundqvist turned the Kings aside twice on breakaways (the first, on a two-on-one) within the first half of the second period, and as regulation wound down, he made a game-saving stop at the end of a wild end-to-end sequence involving Hagelin at each net.
Hagelin again broke out with New York shorthanded, but Quick stopped him with 1:07 left in the third period.
Just 10 seconds later, Carter tried a wrap-around attempt that found the crease. Hustling back, Hagelin’s skate nearly kicked the puck in, but it instead headed along the goal line, before Lundqvist was able to safely knock it away with his stick.
In overtime, Girardi’s teammates headed up ice, thinking the puck would be cleared along the boards. But Richards intercepted Girardi’s desperate attempt to clear, which allowed Williams to score just inside the left post and touch off a Kings celebration.
“We had a really strong start to the game,” said Lundqvist, who was playing in his first Cup Finals game. “It was a pretty fun game. It could have gone either way. Unfortunately, they got the first one here. It’s disappointing, but at the same time, it’s just one game.”
While there is good reason for Lundqvist and his team to retain such optimism, history says it could be very difficult for the Rangers to come back and win the series. Teams that win Game 1 in the last round are 57-17 in the Cup Finals, including 6-2 in the past eight Finals series.
Still, after Los Angeles, the next most resilient team in the 2014 playoffs has been New York.
Game 2 will be back on the Kings’ home ice on Saturday night, ironically right after a horse with a name (California Chrome) referencing Los Angeles’ home state goes for the first Triple Crown just miles from the Rangers’ home arena in New York.
Certainly, a single loss won’t give the Rangers cause to bet against themselves just yet.