If it weren’t for bad luck, the Rangers would have had no luck at all through the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final. Those games, all Los Angeles Kings victories, were a string of bad bounces, unfortunate deflections, and close calls that didn’t go their way. The Rangers were down 3-0 and were on the verge of being swept, but they really hadn’t played poorly. Games 1 and 2 were decided in overtime, and the Rangers had plenty of chances in Game 3, but were thwarted by the Kings’ star goalie Jonathan Quick. But in last night’s 2-1 win in Game 4, the Rangers’ luck finally started to change.
Benoît Pouliot opened the scoring in the first period, perfectly deflecting a puck past Quick for the Rangers’ first Stanley Cup Final goal on home ice since Mark Messier’s game-winner on June 14, 1994. It was the kind of goal that the Kings had been scoring on Henrik Lundqvist, who was beaten twice on deflections in Game 3. But this time it was Quick who had no chance to stop the redirected puck.
Then came the Rangers’ first real break: With the Kings on the power play later in the first period, Lundqvist got a piece of an Alec Martinez shot, but didn’t stop it completely. It dribbled past Lundqvist towards the open net behind him, stopping right on the goal line. Jeff Carter of the Kings swiped at the puck to nudge it in — the puck must be completely over the goal line to count — but couldn’t make contact with it. And before he could knock it in, Rangers defenseman Anton Strålman slid the puck underneath Lundqvist to stop play and save a goal. Another couple of inches, and the Kings would have tied the score. Finally, the Rangers had caught a break.
They’d catch a similar break with just over a minute remaining in the game. With the Kings down 2-1 and the crowd in a frenzy, the puck would again squirt by Lundqvist. It may have gone in, too, if some “snow,” or ice shavings, hadn’t accumulated in Lundqvist’s crease. But the build-up of snow slowed the puck down just enough, and it stopped just short of the goal line. Rangers center Derek Stepan, seeing the puck uncovered inches away from the goal, smartly stuffed the puck under Lundqvist with his glove, rather than covering it himself, which would have resulted in a penalty shot.
The Kings may have actually played their best game of the series in Game 4. Indeed, after Martin St. Louis scored to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead, the Kings outshot the Rangers 26-5. And after the Kings scored to cut the lead in half on a pretty Dustin Brown goal, Los Angeles controlled play for long stretches. (The Rangers went more than half the third period without a shot.)
The Kings were relentless, and Lundqvist was nearly flawless when his team needed him to come up big. But the Rangers learned in the first three games (and in the first two games especially) that a good effort isn’t always enough. A bad break here and there, and even a great performance like the one Lundqvist turned in last night could have been wasted.
The Rangers still trail 3-1 in the series, so last night’s win may have simply delayed the inevitable. If anything, it makes the overtime losses in Games 1 and 2 retroactively even more crushing, as a Rangers win in Game 4 could have tied the series. Instead, the Kings will have another chance to clinch in Game 5, tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
But they may well have skated the Stanley Cup around Madison Square Garden ice last night, if not for a great performance by Lundqvist and, finally, a little bit of Rangers luck.
Or maybe it was something else. Said Vigneault, after the victory: “I’ve been in the game a long time to know that sometimes the hockey gods are there. They were there tonight.”