Through two games of the Stanley Cup Final, the underdog Rangers have hung with the Kings. Los Angeles hasn't led for a single second of play in those games, and only during the third period of Game 1 did the Rangers look outmatched. The consensus heading into the series was that the Rangers, winners of the weaker Eastern Conference, weren't in the Kings' class, and that it would show in the Stanley Cup Final. It hasn't quite played out like that: Both of the first two games have been tight, eventually going into sudden-death overtime. That's something of a moral victory for a Rangers team that wasn't given much of a chance. But the Kings' 5-4 double overtime victory last night was their second OT victory in as many games to start the final. And with the Rangers down 2-0 heading back to New York for Monday's Game 3, they need more than just moral victories.
It's been said many times that playoff overtime hockey is one of the most exciting things in sports, unless you have a rooting interest in the game. In that case, it's agonizing, heart rates rising each time the opponent touches the puck. And when there's an overtime this deep into the playoffs, every scoring chance — and every close call especially — is the difference between a game you joyfully recount for decades and one you want to forget immediately.
In last night's Game 2, the Rangers had several such close calls. Dominic Moore, the hero in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, had a great chance in the first overtime, but the puck rolled off his stick and prevented him from taking what could have been a game-ending shot. Later in overtime, Rangers winger Chris Kreider hit the goal post behind Kings netminder Jonathan Quick. Mats Zuccarello, one of the Rangers' smallest players but one of their best at controlling the puck, created lots of space for himself at one point, skating behind the net and out around the other side before missing the net with his shot. And then came perhaps the best opportunity of them all: The speedy Kreider got an overtime breakaway but couldn't put the puck past Quick.
If any one of those chances led to a Rangers' goal, Kings captain Dustin Brown never has the chance to win the game for the Kings, which he did on a deflection mid-way through the second overtime. If the Rangers score on any of those chances, they return to New York not just with confidence but with home-ice advantage, by virtue of winning a road game in Los Angeles. Instead, they'll return home down two games to none, having blown two-goal leads in both of the first two games.
Much has been made about how the Rangers need to use their quickness in this series, since it's one of their few advantages against a well-rounded, experienced Kings team. And indeed, for much of this series, the Rangers have used their quickness to create scoring opportunities. The Kings are still the more dangerous offensive team, but that's one way the Rangers can hang in against such a good opponent.
The thing about playing such a style, however, is that it needs to be done in conjunction with other things. Even a fast team like the Rangers won't be able to break in behind the opponents' defensemen on every shift. They won't be able to create odd-man rushes (in other words, three-on-twos or two-on-ones) every time they touch they puck. Instead, they'll need to use their speed when the opportunity arises, but still play a fundamentally sound game defensively, and work hard to control the puck when it's in their offensive zone. After all, even though the Rangers play a more up-tempo style than in years past, their biggest strength this year is their ability to prevent goals, not their ability to score them.
But a turnover in overtime — in part a result of their eagerness to counterattack, but mostly the result of a bad bounce and a worse decision by defenseman Dan Girardi — cost them Game 1. And turnovers plagued them last night, too. A Brad Richards turnover led to the wild sequence in which Jarret Stoll scored the Kings' first goal. And Ryan McDonagh, trying to be too fancy in a very dangerous place on the ice, coughed up the puck just feet from Henrik Lundqvist, allowing former Ranger Marián Gáborík to tie the game at 4 in the third period.
Meanwhile, the Kings did a good job of making it difficult for Lundqvist to see the puck last night. (It's a hockey truism that the best way to beat a good goaltender is to make sure he can't see what's coming at him.) Such a strategy means positioning players in front of the goalie, and doing so led to the game's most controversial goal. With the Rangers leading 4-2 in the third period, Dwight King of Los Angeles made contact with Lundqvist while tipping the puck past him, but he wasn't whistled for goaltender interference, which is a penalty and would have negated the goal. (Overtime, by the way, saw another controversial moment, when shortly before Brown's game-winning goal, replays seemed to show that the Kings had shot the puck out of play without it touching the glass atop the boards, which should have resulted in a delay-of-game penalty.)
The Rangers haven't really played that poorly through two games (again, except for the third period of Game 1). Either of them could have ended differently if a single play or a single call went their way. But as it stands, they have their work cut out for them. Because while they rallied back from a two-game deficit in the second round, that happened against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that in recent years has frequently disappointed in the playoffs. The Kings, meanwhile, won the Stanley Cup two years ago and reached the conference final last year. There's a reason they were such big favorites heading into the series. And so now the Rangers face a virtual must-win in Game 3, because a loss tomorrow night means this series may very well be a short one.