The Stanley Cup was in the house at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, but Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers refused to let the Los Angeles Kings celebrate on the Rangers’ ice.
A little bit of puck luck didn’t hurt the home team, either.
Instead of a Los Angeles sweep, the Rangers finally figured out how to keep from completely blowing a 2-0 lead against the Kings.
After leading by that score in each of the first two games of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals — only to lose each time — New York held on for a thrilling 2-1 victory that sent the Cup and the two teams competing for it back to Los Angeles, where the Rangers will try to make it a series after all, in Game 5, on Friday night.
Ending a scoring drought of 123:01 (that went back to Game 2), center Derick Brassard passed back to defenseman John Moore, who fired a shot that was redirected in mid-air by left winger Benoit Pouliot, just under the crossbar, to put New York up, 1-0, with 12:35 left in the opening period.
While the goal didn’t officially count as the Rangers’ second power play score — in what by game’s end, was 17 man-advantage chances for New York during the series — it essentially was, as it came with the Rangers still attacking, and just two seconds after the Kings killed off the game’s first penalty.
New York doubled its lead, 6:27 into the second period, after some good work by right winger Martin St. Louis and a bit of good fortune for the Rangers.
Receiving a two-line pass from defenseman Ryan McDonagh, just over the center line, St. Louis carried the puck into the Los Angeles zone and left it back for center Derek Stepan to send the puck toward the net, where left winger Chris Kreider tried to get a stick on it.
However, Kreider’s stick slammed against the left pad of goaltender Jonathan Quick (17 saves). As that happened, defenseman Alec Martinez accidentally redirected the puck between Quick’s legs and through the crease, allowing St. Louis to come from the left side of the net and bounce the puck off of the far post and into the cage.
Just 2:19 later, defenseman Dan Girardi (who had a game-high six hits — nearly one-third of New York’s 20) lost his stick and turned the puck over at the Los Angeles blue line, which let right winger Dustin Brown to go the other way and beat Lundqvist after a couple of fakes, to cut the Rangers’ lead in half, with 11:14 left in the period.
From that point, Lundqvist (40 saves) was sensational, making a variety terrific saves, on other breakaways, shots from just in front of the net, stopping rebounds and battling through tough screens to repeatedly deny the Kings again and again.
Of course, Lundqvist had to be that good, since Los Angeles, which outshot New York in each period, and 41-19 overall, had 26 of the game’s final 29 shots after Brown’s goal.
Yet Lundqvist didn’t quite do it all by himself. Not only did the Rangers (who were outshot 15-1 in the final period) often hang back during a scoreless third period to help out their star goalie, but some lucky breaks went Lundqvist’s way, as well.
In the first period, defenseman Anton Stralman cleared a puck that had squeezed past Lundqvist and was partially — but not completely — over the goal line. Center Jeff Carter was reaching to poke the puck past the line, and might have, had Stralman not gotten his stick on it a second earlier.
Later, former Ranger Marian Gaborik, bidding for his 14th goal of this year’s playoffs, put a wrist shot over Lundqvist’s right shoulder that glanced off the crossbar in the first minute of the second period.
And finally, there were two dangerous scrums in front of the net over the final three minutes of the game, the second of which featured a puck getting between Lundqvist’s legs. Some accumulated ice shavings slowed the puck’s momentum just enough, that it rested right at the goal line before Stepan alertly slapped the puck away with his left hand, with 1:11 remaining.
Nearly giving New York some breathing room in the final minute, left winger Rick Nash sent a shot from mid-ice that started out down the middle, but gradually veered to the right and just wide of an empty net, with Quick pulled for an extra skater.
Los Angeles applied further pressure as time wound down, but the Rangers held. Before he left the ice, Lundqvist praised the offensive resourcefulness of the Kings to NBC reporter Pierre McGuire.
“They create something from basically nothing,” he said. Humbly deflecting McGuire’s kind words about Lundqvist’s stellar play, Lundqvist focused on the help he got from his teammates and the serendipity that worked in the Rangers’ favor.
“It was a battle the whole game,” he said. “When they turn it up, you need to rely on your teammates and some luck.”
Stepan didn’t shy away from crediting Lundqvist though. “He stole the show tonight and we’re going to need him to do it again in L.A.”
Noting that New York mind have relied a little too much on trying to protect the lead over attacking more, Stepan added, “I think we sat back a little too much in the third period, but all that matters is that we got the win… [we’ll] try to find [another] way to get a win in L.A. and come back here, and you never know what happens.”
While all that the Rangers may have accomplished is simply delaying the inevitable — especially since only one four NHL have rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series (including just once in the Cup Finals, when Toronto did it in 1942) — they don’t have to look very far for inspiration. They overcame a 3-1 hole to beat Pittsburgh in seven games, in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last month.
And as Lundqvist noted, the reason his team is playing Los Angeles in the Cup Final is because the Kings came back from being down, 3-0, to San Jose, in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, prior to becoming the first NHL team to win three consecutive Game 7s.