On Saturday, the Rangers and Kings resume the Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center, and anyone who thinks he or she can figure this series out has another thing coming … at least if the opener offers any barometer of the action.
As even-steven as any match can be, it wasn’t decided until Justin Williams exploited a Dan Girardi error in sudden death to give the Kings the 3-2 OT victory.
The loss couldn’t be more heartbreaking for the Rangers, particularly since they seemed to have the winner on their sticks late in the third period.
After the visitors had successfully killed a penalty at the start of the overtime, coach Alain Vigneault‘s skaters seemed to have restored equilibrium. But, then it happened.
The Kings stumbled over the blue line with the puck skimming to Girardi. The defenseman appeared to have complete control of the puck and so the Rangers forwards began moving on the offensive.
Suddenly and unexpectedly — without any enemy interference — Girardi collapsed to the ice from where he relinquished the puck. It was captured by the Kings’ Mike Richards, who delivered the biscuit to Williams, whose wrister was too flawless for Henrik Lundqvist to handle at 4:36.
“It’s a fast game,” said Lundqvist, “and it (the giveaway) happens.”
Thus, this sweet opportunity to open the series with a win metamorphosed into a disappointing defeat. Most disheartening was the fact that Lundqvist had played nobly. Among his 40 saves were some remarkable gems.
“I felt like the rebound control was pretty good,” added Lundqvist. “That’s the biggest part when you play against the Kings.”
The heartening news was that for more than 17 minutes into the first period, the Rangers seemed headed for a runaway as they opened a 2-0 lead and came oh-so-close to making it 3-0.
Then the wall which had built up in front of Lundqvist began disintegrating slowly and relentlessly.
It might even have been 3-0 for New York on a 3-on-2, but Martin St. Louis‘ pass to an almost-free Dom Moore failed to materialize. It proved to be fatal when Kyle Clifford beat Lundqvist with 2:27 remaining in the opening period on an ill-advised and failed clear by Derek Stepan.
The domination exhibited by the visitors evaporated early in the middle period when Drew Doughty showed why he’s a Conn Smythe Trophy contender. After entering the offensive zone, he put a pass from Williams through his own legs to avoid the Rangers defense. His shot found room between Lundqvist’s clenching underarm at 6:36 of the period.
Any thoughts that the Kings were a tired club proved to be a myth as the game unfolded toward the end of the second frame with the game still tied at two.
Once the third period began, the ice appeared tilted at a 45-degree angle in the Kings’ favor, with the embattled Lundqvist fighting off endless shots.
Halfway into the third period, the Kings had outshot the Rangers 13-0 — not exactly a prescription for a New York victory — yet the Blueshirts hung on by a gossamer string. All they needed was one break and the win could still be theirs.
That break developed late in the period when St. Louis cruised in untouched with the game-winner on his stick. His shot was hard, high and seemed true — until Jonathan Quick deflected it harmlessly past the net.
It was now a goaltender’s battle. With six minutes left, the Blueshirts had looked every bit as good as their foe, until Tyler Toffoli did an end-run around Girardi, forcing The King to bail out his backliner once again.
With just over five minutes remaining, nobody had to be told that the next goal would win the game. It almost was decided whenRick Nash burst down the right side before stopping in his tracks only to lose the puck.
Then the break went LA’s way — and I do mean break — as Brian Boyle took two for slashing with 1:36 left.
Yet it was a Hagelin breakaway that could have been the game-breaker until Quick diffused him with a phenomenal reflex save, only to be followed by Lundqvist miraculously blunting Jeff Carter’s wraparound.
Entering the extra session, Lundqvist had 39 saves to Quick’s 23. But don’t let the numbers fool you. Quick’s late third-period stop on St. Louis was as good as anything the full house had seen all night.
The capacity crowd was left wondering whether the winner would be as a result of a power play — LA had 24 seconds on its PP into the first OT — a bad bounce or whatever.
So what did the Rangers learn from the opener?
For one thing, they were only one good clearing pass away from a win. Or to put another way, Quick’s clutch saves against St. Louis and Hagelin on the late third-period breakaway spelled success for the home team.
“We did a lot of good things,” said Brad Richards.
A few more good ones on Saturday could give the Blueshirts a 1-1 tie in the series.
“It could have gone either way,” Lundqvist correctly concluded. “Unfortunately they got the first win in!”