After a pair of similar starts yielded the same heartbreaking results in Los Angeles, the New York Rangers will happy to return home.
Two games into the Stanley Cup Final, and it’s been two-goal leads for New York in each game, yet two straight contests that ended with the Los Angeles Kings rallying for the final three goals, including game-winners in extra time.
Having already lost a 2-0 lead, only to lose, 3-2, in overtime, in Game 1, the Rangers let a 4-2 edge get away in Game 2, as the Kings pulled out a 5-4 win, to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series on a deflected goal by right winger Dustin Brown, 10:26 in a second overtime session at the Staples Center on Saturday night.
With Los Angeles erasing a two-goal hole to win in overtime, in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals (in Chicago), the Kings made NHL history by becoming the first team to overcome such deficits while winning three consecutive playoff games in the same postseason.
To make matters even tougher for New York to swallow, the Kings’ third score came amidst some controversy on a goal that probably should have been disallowed (but wasn’t), and Los Angeles’ next tally (to send the game to overtime) was scored by old friend (former Ranger), right winger Marian Gaborik.
And that was all after the Rangers (who also led 3-1) coughed up three separate two-goal leads.
Just as they did in the series opener, the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the first period, this time, on goals from defenseman Ryan McDonagh and left winger Mats Zuccarello.
McDonagh blasted a shot past goaltender Jonathan Quick (34 saves), 10:48 into the game, after center Dominic Moore passed back to McDonagh at the left point.
Later, McDonagh tried for another goal following a Kings turnover that led to New York controlling the puck in Los Angeles’ end. Center Derick Brassard passed from behind the net to McDonagh, who fired a shot from the left circle that hit Zucarello and dropped into the crease before Zuccarello slammed he puck into an open net, to put the Rangers up two goals, with 1:14 left in the opening period.
Early in the second period, right winger Justin Williams, who won game Game 1 with an overtime goal, made a great pass back to center Jarret Stoll, who with goaltender Hernik Lundqvist (39 saves) sprawling out of position, slowly slid the puck between Lundqvist and defenseman Kevin Klein (who was sliding in front of the net) to cut Los Angeles’ deficit in half, just 1:46 into the second period.
But New York increased its lead back to two goals when center Derek Stepan (off of an assist from left winger Chris Kreider) came down the middle and made a perfect setup pass for right winger Martin St. Louis, who sent a hard shot past Quick with 8:36 left in the frame.
The Kings again closed to within a single goal, just 3:15 later, when defenseman Slava Voynov passed along the blue line to defenseman Willie Mitchell — who with the help of a screen by appropriately named left winger Dwight King blocking the vision of Lundqvist — scored on a slap shot.
Brassard then won the ensuing faceoff, and after he dumped the puck behind the Los Angeles net, Zuccarello quckly tracked it down and passed to Brassard, who from close range, gave New York a 4-2 lead a mere 11 seconds after Mitchell’s goal.
As they did in the third period of Game 1 — when the Kings outshot the Rangers 20-3 in a scoreless frame — Los Angeles controlled the final period of regulation, while holding a 12-7 edge in shots — only this time, the Kings scored. Twice.
First, it was King, who appeared to have made illegal contact with Lundqvist to the point where an interference penalty could have been called — or, at the very least, the goal might have been disallowed.
Williams posted the last of his three assists on the night with a nice pass from just above the left circle to the right point, where defenseman Matt Greene sent a wrist shot toward a scrum between King and McDonagh right in front of Lundqvist.
King was credited with a tip-in goal to draw Los Angeles back to within just one score, only 1:58 into the third period, as Lundqvist and McDonagh each argued with the referees to no avail.
“I’m extremely disappointed on that non-call,” Lundqvist said after the game. “They gotta be consistent with that rule,” he added, while noting that Rangers left winger Benoit Pouliot was called for interference on a very similar play, 7:07 into the second period.
“They score a goal and I can’t even move,” Lundqvist added. “It’s extremely frustrating for them to get life like that. And after that, it’s a different game. I don’t expect a penalty on that, but they need to blow the whistle… it’s such an important play of the game, and I don’t buy the explanation. They said the puck had already passed me, and I don’t buy it.”
Persistence paid off for Gaborik later in the period, as he stayed with a couple of attempts that were stopped by Lundqvist before he finally poked home a rebound to tie the game with his 13th goal of this year’s playoffs, with 12:24 left in regulation.
New York had the better of the play in the first overtime, and nearly won the game on a couple of occasions, when Kreider hit the post and Zuccarello glanced a close shot off of the crossbar.
In the next overtime, center Anze Kopitar dropped a pass back to the left point for Mitchell, who shot toward the net, allowing Brown to send the Kings on a plane to New York with a two-game lead despite Los Angeles still looking for its first lead in regulation during the series.
“I didn’t know where it was going, but if you can get a stick on it, you try to,” Brown said. “I was just lucky enough to kind of get a little tip on it and redirect it in. It’s a big goal.”
One that all but has New York with its back to the wall after playing nearly well enough two be up 2-0 in the series instead of facing the reverse situation.
While the Rangers have clearly showed that they can hang with the Kings (who are seeking their second Cup title in three years), moral victories don’t win Stanley Cups. Thus, although Monday night’s Game 3, at Madison Square Garden, in New York, isn’t quite a must-win situation (since the home team won’t be facing elimination), the Rangers can’t afford to play well, yet come up short again.