Three unlucky bounces, Jonathan Quick at his beastly best, and there you have it. The Kings defeated the Rangers 3-0 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final to take a 3-0 lead in the series. This was quintessential Kings hockey. Outnumber the opponent on the boards, outnumber the opponent in front of both nets, let Quick see the puck and pummel anyone who thinks they have a second chance. It's a good strategy. This was the kind of game that many people expected from the beginning. It's the kind of game that makes the first two losses by the Rangers all the more devastating, because it is unlikely that the Rangers are able to throw this kind of a game at the Kings. Unfortunately for us hockey fans, there isn't much left to this season.
Quick was at his athletic, lightning fast, aggressive best. Not one, but two desperation paddle saves defined this game. The first was in the second half of the first period, on a rebound opportunity along the ice against Mats Zuccarello against Quick's right post. With the puck momentarily tied up in Zuccarello's feet, Quick managed to get the paddle of his stick down at an angle that deflected the puck back across the crease, along the goal line and out past the opposite post away from traffic. A few minutes later, the Kings killed off one of the six power plays that the Rangers would fail to convert. As has been the norm this series, missed opportunities by the Rangers were followed by a Kings goal. This time, Jeff Carter snapped one between two Rangers, right as time expired. At first, it seemed that Henrik Lundqvist was fooled by Carter's release and just misplayed the shot, the puck glancing off the top edge and into the net. On the later replays, it was clear that the puck deflected off of the skate of a sliding Dan Girardi. With 0.8 seconds left in the first period, this was a brutally unlucky goal for the King to give up, and a tough goal to have to think about for 18 minutes.
The second backbreaker was Quick's doing again. Derek Brassard managed to elevate a puck past Quick's outstretched right pad, but Quick was able to get the paddle of his stick on the puck a foot off the ice. Frustration for the Rangers, followed by undisciplined penalties, and then a Kings power play. The Kings second goal came on one of these power plays from a deflection off of the hand of Martin St Louis, through the skates of Jeff Carter, on which Lundqvist had no chance. The third goal resulted from a 2-on-1 pass from Mike Richards in the same period that bounced off Ryan McDonagh's skate, directly back onto Richards' stick. He easily put it past the recovering Lundqvist. At the second intermission, even studio analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones were feeling sorry for Lundqvist, who can't catch a break after 9 years of waiting to compete on this stage. For good measure, Quick stoned a breakaway by Chris Kreider 7 seconds into the third period, and it was clear the Rangers weren't scoring tonight. (Kreider seems to have reformed his goalie-hunting ways that took Montreal's Carey Price out of the Eastern Conference Final. Unfortunately for the Rangers, he doesn't yet seem to have the finishing hands to beat a goalie of Quick's caliber on a clean chance.)
Still, the Rangers had their (missed) opportunities. Rick Nash allowed himself to be pulled down by Drew Doughty in front of an open net off of a wraparound move. The smart play by Doughty saved a goal, and the Rangers couldn't score on the resulting power play. Nash had another semi-breakaway opportunity, but he was checked partly from behind by Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, and was unable to finish as he went airborne (well, slightly) to avoid plowing into Quick. Then he let Quick have a few whacks at his head with his glove, without so much as a retaliatory glare. Poor Rick just seems to have lost his mojo.
After Quick stopped Kreider's breakaway at the beginning of the 3rd, it appeared that the Rangers fell into a pattern reminiscent of both San Jose and Anaheim. In the first 2 games of this series, particularly the first two periods of game 1, the Rangers were all over the crease, and were throwing pucks at the Kings net from all angles. Tonight, down 2-0 in games and losing on the scoreboard, they weren't. Instead of quick-release shots with traffic in front, they were holding off on shooting for a split second, looking for a cleaner lane or a better look at the net. That doesn't work against the Kings. When teams start looking like that, the shutout is coming.
It's easy to look at the game tonight and say that the difference between Quick and Lundqvist tonight was luck, but luck often seems to to favor the Kings in these situations. Unlucky goals against Quick seem rare, especially in the biggest games. That is partly because he is an outstanding goaltender with fast reflexes, unparalleled instincts, and an aggressive, nasty, relentless competitive energy. But it's also because of the Kings' defensive discipline.
Discipline isn't just about not taking penalties, or covering your man in the slot. It's about understanding what you have to do and when, and understanding when not to do something that has an unpredictable result. When the Kings defensemen or forwards block a shot, they block it. It either stays in front of them, or goes well wide of the net. A blocked shot rarely reaches Quick. If his defensemen and forwards don't have the lane sealed off, then they don't try to block the shot. They'll take their chances and let their outstanding goalie make a play. More often than not, he'll make the save. In these situations, the Kings' skaters look for rebounds to clear, or bodies and sticks to tie up.
Contrast this to the Rangers' plays on the first two Kings' goals tonight. On the first, there is a shooting lane for Jeff Carter between two Rangers. Dan Girardi lays out on the ice and angles his foot into the shooting lane. Carter snaps off his shot, it deflects off Girardi's skate just enough to deflect in off of Lundqvist's glove, and the Rangers are down 1-0. On the Kings' second goal, Jake Muzzin takes a shot from the point on a power play, knowing that Jeff Carter has position in front of the net and is also occupying a defenseman, increasing the difficulty for Henrik even more. Halfway to the net, Martin St Louis reaches out his left hand to block the shot. The puck deflects down and to Lundqvist's left, and goes through Carter's skates past his left pad. 2-0 Kings. The Rangers are feeling unlucky and desperate, they start to press, and the almost inevitable third goal results.
Two goals. Two deflections off of Rangers players past their own goalie. Without those, do the Kings win? Yes, probably. But with them, even if Quick doesn't make his two incredible paddle saves, the Kings are winning this game 3-2. No one will criticize Girardi and St Louis because those are considered maximum effort plays made with the intent of helping the team, but they are undisciplined decisions that lead to goals. Without Girardi's skate, Lundqvist will stop Carter's shot 99 times out of 100, maybe even 100. Once the puck hits Girardi's skate, the element of luck comes into play, and the certainty drops well below 99-100%. The second goal is a little tougher. Carter is in position and may well deflect the puck, but at least he is in Lundqvist's vision as a threat. The deflection by St Louis adds a second variable, with the extra effect of rendering Lundqvist's initial positioning inadequate. Once the Kings are up 2-0, it's too much for the Rangers to overcome.
Kings fans like to say that their team feels like a team of destiny. Destiny has nothing to do with it. Yes, the Rangers were unlucky tonight. They are unlucky to be trailing 3-0 in the series. They will likely be unlucky to have been swept after Game 4 on Wednesday night, although they are a proud team that will not go quietly. If they win, then they will likely be unlucky to have lost in 5 games. Ultimately, that's the difference between these two teams. The Rangers have been unlucky. The Kings are playing so that luck doesn't matter at all.