We have more hockey!
It remains to be seen how much, but tonight the Rangers extended the season by at least one more game, finishing off game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Kings, 2-1.
I don't keep line charts, so I'll leave the details of the line changes that Rangers coach Alain Vigneault made for game 4 to the detailed professional analysis. Derek Dorsett stayed in the lineup on the 4th line, effectively extending Dan Carcillo's suspension to 7 games. A bigger key was dropping Brad Richards to the 4th line and giving sparkplug forward Dominic Moore more ice time with Martin St Louis and Mats Zuccarello. Whether it was Vigneault's line changes, or his pre-game speech (he told Pierre McGuire it was from "that Netflix video"!), it was clear that the Rangers showed up to play. More specifically, it was clear that Henrik Lundqvist does not go quietly into the offseason.
Before the series, most experts felt that the Kings were the better team, and that the Rangers needed for Henrik Lundqvist to steal at least 2 games in order for them to beat the Kings four times. Even more than Quick for the Kings, Lundqvist is the soul of this Rangers team and has been for years. He has played well so far in this series, but fate did not appear to be on his side. Until tonight. When the final horn sounded, Lundqvist jumped off the ice and pumped his stick fist. The message was clear. Henrik Lundqvist was not going to get swept out of his first Stanley Cup Final.
The Rangers made their own luck in game 4. Or, rather, they didn't make their own bad luck. Lundqvist stopped 40 shots, and none of his teammates deflected the puck past him. Tonight, when the Rangers blocked shots, they didn't just deflect them back to the goal. They got in lanes, and didn't reach with desperation. The Kings dominated possession, but the Rangers hit hard, often and effectively. They separated the Kings from the puck and disrupted rushes. They played like the Kings in front of their own net, tying up sticks and laying on bodies so Lundqvist could locate and control the puck. As with Jonathan Quick on Monday night, this game showed that as long as either of these goaltenders can track the puck, it is incredibly difficult to score on them, rebound chances included.
The Rangers took a 2-goal lead early, and finally held it. Barely. Benoit Pouliot gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead nearly midway through the first period, just seconds after a high-sticking penalty on Willie Mitchell had expired. Finally the Rangers got numbers in front of Jonathan Quick, and it paid off. They set a high screen in the slot, and as Pouliot flashed across below the screen, close in front of Quick from the goalie's left, Derek Brassard let loose a shot from the left center blue line, wide right of the net behind Pouliot. Pouliot deflected the puck from behind his body, back into the high right corner, over Quick's glove. Quick barely even moved his glove hand. He couldn't see the original shot, and the redirection came high and from wide of the net. The Rangers did the hard work, and they were rewarded for it. It's about the only kind of play on which Quick has no chance..
After the goal, the Kings responded with their usual pressure. In fact, the Rangers barely possessed the puck for the remainder of the game. They didn't exactly sit back, at least until the third period, but the Kings were bringing the heat. Over the course of the entire game, they outshot the Rangers 41-19. Taken from the time of the Rangers's goal, it's actually 34-12. Nearly 3 to 1! Luckily for the Rangers, one of those 12 went in.
At 6:27 of the 2nd period, the Rangers got some real luck, although it was stick luck instead of puck luck. Derek Stepan released a shot from the left point, but his stick broke. The slightly slower puck was redirected by Chris Kreider under the sprawling splits of Quick at the top of the crease, to the left low post and the waiting stick of Martin St. Louis. As in game 2, Quick somehow had his paddle across the shooting lane, but St Louis was able to elevate the puck up and across, just inside the far right post. The Rangers had the dreaded 2-goal lead. It lasted less than 3 minutes.
Stick luck evened out at 8:46, when Dan Girardi's stick broke at the right offensive point, sending the puck directly onto the stick of Dustin Brown. the Kings' captain streaked down the center of the ice, backhand-deked Lundqvist into a right half butterfly, and then pulled the puck to his forehand and slid it past the King's outstretched left toe. 2-1.
At this point, let's be real. Anyone who thought the Rangers were going to be able to hold on and win this game is lying. (Passenger Seat Mom and College Kid apparently excluded. They had "told you" typed into their phones, ready to send to me from the opening faceoff.) Especially after Mats Zuccarello seemed destined to own the game 4 Jonathan Quick challenge moment at 12:44 of the second, sending the puck flying high over the crossbar with Quick sprawled on the ice in front of him, just as he had done in game 2. The Kings looked big, fast, and undaunted, and it seemed that it was only a matter of time before the scripts of games 1 and 2 were repeated.
The Rangers were outshot 15-11 in the second period, and 15-1 in the third. This is the kind of pressure, though, facing elimination and a driving opponent, that Lundqvist seems to thrive on. He stopped Jeff Carter on two breakaways. He made countless saves in traffic and in scrums in the crease. He had a little "luck." In the second, Marian Gaborik took a page from the Kings' game 1 playbook, waiting a split second on a wide rush for Lundqvist to slightly drop his stick hand before firing a high shot. He beat Lundqvist over his right shoulder, but hit the crossbar. Later, on a similar rush, Lundqvist stood fast and blockered the shot up into the corner netting. The King also got LA-style help from his defense, as Derek Stepan shoveled a puck with his left hand under Lundqvist from off of the goal line late in the 3rd. (Anton Stralman had also sticked a puck off the line in the first.) He and the Rangers withstood a furious flurry with the Kings net empty, even overcoming an empty-net-icing jinx by Rick Nash with just over a minute left.
So now the Kings, the Rangers, and the Stanley Cup pile onto airplanes and head back to the West Coast for Friday's game 5. The Rangers deserved to win at least one game at home. Henrik Lundqvist deserved to show he could steal a game on the only stage he hasn't yet been able to strut his stuff. Rangers fans deserved to hope that they'll be able to drop another Hyundai on game 6 tickets.
The Kings won't care about any of that. They faced a team with nothing to lose, desperate to win on home ice, and a proud goaltender who simply refused to be swept out of his first Stanley Cup Final. They outshot them 2 to 1. Sure, they had a few mistakes in their defensive zone, and a few penalties they didn't need to take. They lost by one goal, but had two additional pucks behind Lundqvist that probably would have crossed the goal line on January ice. They won't be nervous.
I'm a hockey fan. I don't do this for a living, so I don't have to spend two extra days on the road. I'm happy for another game. So are the Rangers. Hopefully for both of us, the will of the King and the pride of the Rangers will be enough to keep the Stanley Cup from having to suffer being kissed by this guy, at least for one more game. I just wouldn't bet a Hyundai on it.