New York, New York. The city so nice, they played here twice.
Wait, I may have gotten that line wrong. Which would be fitting, given that so many of us got much of this Stanley Cup final wrong too. Like most, I picked the Kings to win, but I figured it would be a long series in which L.A. controlled the play but New York held on thanks to a pronounced goaltending edge. Instead, the Rangers went into last night having been every bit as good or better than the Kings for long stretches, but on the verge of being swept anyway thanks largely to Jonathan Quick’s brilliance.
In last night’s Game 4, the script finally held. The Kings were dominant, coming at the Rangers in waves and eventually outshooting them 41-19. But this time it was Henrik Lundqvist who slammed the door, keeping the Rangers alive.
And because of that, we’re headed back to L.A. for Game 5 Friday night. If the Kings win, they lift the Cup on home ice. If they lose, what seemed like a sure thing this time yesterday suddenly gets really, really interesting.
I spent the week in New York, covering Games 3 and 4 and all the talk in between. Here are 10 quasi-related dispatches from the City That Never Sweeps.
1. It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good
Most playoff series end up being defined by a theme, and this one was shaping up as a battle between two contenders. In one corner: puck luck, specifically the Rangers’ almost total lack of it when it mattered. In the other: the dreaded two-goal lead and the Kings’ continuing ability to overcome it.
Last night, both themes got flipped. The Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead for the third time in the series, thanks to a nifty first-period deflection by Benoit Pouliot and a Martin St. Louis rebound goal in the second. That led to lots of cracks about the Kings having them right where they wanted them, and Rangers fans weren’t laughing when Dustin Brown cut the lead to one on a short-handed breakaway.
But this time the lead held. And it held in part thanks to an almost extraordinary sequence late in the third that saw a puck squeeze by Lundqvist only to die in a pile of ice shavings on the goal line. Derek Stepan had the presence of mind to swat the puck away with his hand without covering it,1 and the Rangers survived. It echoed a similar play in the first, in which Jeff Carter somehow couldn’t get a stick on another goal-line puck.
After the game, Kings captain Dustin Brown didn’t want to talk about bad luck. “You make your own bounces this time of year,” he told us. And then he repeated himself, in slightly different words, when asked about it again. New reporters would arrive and ask yet again, and by the third or fourth time through the same question, he seemed almost pained.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, not surprisingly, was in a somewhat better mood when the topic came up. “I’ve been in the game a long time to know that sometimes the hockey gods are there,” he said. “They were there tonight.”
2. The Series of Girardi’s Discontent
The luck didn’t all go the Rangers’ way. Brown’s breakaway came after Dan Girardi’s stick decided that a harmless-looking offensive zone pass attempt would be a good time to explode. Brown picked up the puck and skated in alone, beating Lundqvist on a slick move that left the Rangers goalie tumbling backward into his own net.
It was just the latest forgettable moment in what has become a brutal series for Girardi, who’s usually a dependable defensive presence. His fanned clearing attempt led to Justin Williams’s overtime winner in Game 1, and he’s spent most of the series looking slow, indecisive, and vulnerable, to the extent that you start to wonder if he’s hurt. None of that has gone unnoticed by Rangers fans, who spent much of the game politely encouraging him to play better.
Part of me was relieved to see Girardi avoid wearing the goat horns in another loss. The other part shudders to think what the hockey gods have in store for him tomorrow.