Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 12, 2014

King Henrik Refuses To Go Quietly

The odds are still very good that the parade celebrating this year’s Stanley Cup champion will wind its way amongst the palm trees of Los Angeles. Certainly it is much more likely to be there than along the famous “Canyon of Heroes” stretch of Broadway in lower Manhattan. The L.A. Kings lead the Finals three games to one and will skate on home ice at the Staples Center Friday night in Game Five. But if the New York Rangers and their fans are headed for disappointment and defeat, at least they have avoided humiliation by winning Game Four on Wednesday and denying Los Angeles a four game sweep. For that they can thank goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and a tiny pile of snow.

The Kings were penciled in as the favorites before this series began, if for no other reason than the fact that the Western Conference has been the superior of the NHL’s two halves for some time now. Five of the last seven Stanley Cup winning teams have been from the West, as have six of the last eight winners of the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the franchise with the best regular season record. In that same stretch Western Conference teams have gotten the better of their Eastern opponents in inter-conference play in every season but one. The Kings’ contribution to that record of dominance was the club’s first championship just two years ago.

In contrast the Rangers haven’t been to the finals in two decades, and they weren’t exactly a trendy pick to be the Eastern Conference representative this year. But no major North American sport offers its fans more unpredictable playoffs than the NHL. Four teams in the East fared better than New York during the regular season, but the Rangers hit their stride at just the right time. After alternating wins through a seven game opening round series against the Flyers, they rallied from a three games to one hole and beat the second seeded Penguins in the Conference Semifinals. Lundqvist virtually willed his team to victory, allowing just a single goal in each of the final three games.

In the Conference finals the Rangers got a bit lucky in that they did not have to face the Bruins, the NHL’s best team during the regular season. Instead they faced a Canadiens squad that had been pushed to the limit in overcoming Boston in round two. New York poured it on against a flat Montreal team in the first two games, and then held on to advance to the finals in six.

Aside from their recent championship, a run of three straight trips to the Conference Finals in the NHL’s stronger conference, and a better regular season record, the Kings were made favorites against the Rangers because of their superior speed. Add to that the veteran presence of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, two keys to L.A.’s 2012 championship, Anze Kopitar, who led the team in scoring during the regular season, and Marian Gaborik, who leads the league in scoring during the playoffs; and when the first puck dropped for Game One there weren’t many pundits outside of Gotham who thought much of the Rangers’ chances.

Some New York fans pinned their hopes on the fact that Los Angeles was both forced to play the full seven games in each of the first three rounds, and to come from behind to claim each series. L.A. spotted San Jose a three games to none lead in the opening round before rallying to win. The Kings then won the first two against the Ducks, only to drop three in a row before once again winning a pair of elimination contests. Then they dropped the opener of the Conference Finals to Chicago, before turning that series around with six unanswered goals in Game Two, including five in the third period. But even then it took until almost six minutes into overtime in Game Seven for Los Angeles to book its spot in the Cup Finals. The Kings took to the ice for Game One with just three days rest, while the Rangers had been idle for almost a week.

But the favorites showed no signs of fatigue in winning the first two contests out west. While New York flew home in a hole, there had to be some hope for the Rangers in that both games could have gone either way. The opener went to overtime and Game Two stretched into a second overtime period. Both times Los Angeles never led until the winning goal found its way past Lundqvist and into the back of the net. The Rangers also had more than their share of tough breaks, bad bounces, and at least one dubious non-call of goaltender interference in the contests at the Staples Center. Surely back at Madison Square Garden, with the screaming support of their faithful fans, the Rangers could climb back in the series.

Instead the New York skaters offered up their worst performance of the entire playoffs in the crucial Game Three. At the end of what had been a fairly even first period, Carter was left open in the middle of the ice on a three on two opportunity. His wrist shot glanced off the skate of Dan Girardi, sliding across the ice in a block attempt, and caromed up and over Lundqvist’s shoulder. The score with just eight tenths of a second remaining gave the Kings their first in-game lead of the series. It stunned the Rangers and deflated the crowd. While New York threw a lot of shots at Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick, many were low percentage chances. By the time the final horn sounded Los Angeles had a 3-0 win and a matching 3-0 lead in the series.

If the Rangers played their worst in Game Three, the Kings played their best in Game Four. They were markedly faster and more aggressive than the Rangers. Their passing was crisper, their attacks relentless. Forty-one times they put the puck on net. But if many Rangers fans and perhaps a few members of the team’s roster had despaired, New York’s 32-year old goalie was not ready to yield. The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner and only netminder in NHL history to record at least 30 wins in each of his first seven seasons, Lundqvist holds a raft of team records for his position. But in the years since he came to New York from Sweden he has never made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and he was manifestly not ready to be swept off the ice.

As he had in Game Seven against the Flyers and in the three game rally against the Penguins, Lundqvist saved his team yet again. He stopped forty of the forty-one shots fired at him Wednesday night, including all fifteen the Kings put on net in the final period. The only attempt that got past him was off Dustin Brown’s stick on a breakaway midway through period two, cutting New York’s lead in half. Thanks to Lundqvist the Rangers set an NHL record by winning their eighth consecutive elimination contest on home ice, a streak that dates to 2008. In those games King Henrik has turned aside 243 of 251 shots while posting a miniscule 0.99 goals against average.

Yet it might have been for naught but for that patch of snow. With 1:11 remaining and Kings skaters swarming the net, the puck slipped behind Lundqvist and slid ever so slowly toward the goal line. But right on the red line the disk came to a stop, blocked by a little puff of white fluff. As fans held their breath Derek Stepan slid in from the side and swept the puck away with his glove.

Prior to this series, 320 teams in the three North American sports that play seven game playoff series have taken 3-0 leads. All but five of those teams have gone on to win. Odds are that Los Angeles will add to that lopsided statistic, perhaps as soon as Friday night. But while there is life there is hope, and improbably enough, the Rangers are still alive. They fly west knowing that four of the five teams that overcame 3-0 deficits were NHL squads, the most recent being their current opponent in this year’s opening round. They fly west knowing that whatever happens, for one night at least their one King was more than enough to beat an entire team of them; with an assist credited to a tiny pile of snow.

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