With inspirational New York City police officer Steven McDonald and legendary former captain Mark Messier in attendance, the Rangers refused to let their season end Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. Instead, led by a heroic performance by Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers beat the Los Angeles Kings, 2-1, in Game Four of the Stanley Cup Final after having lost the first three games of the series.
The Stanley Cup, which was in the building, shined up and ready just in case the Kings could seal the deal Wednesday, will be put back in its case and shipped to Los Angeles where Game Five will be hosted by the Kings at the Staples Center on Friday night.
"We didn't want to see the Cup come out on our ice tonight," stated Lundqvist, who stopped 39 of 40 shots Wednesday. "Just the thought of that makes me sick."
Though outshot by a wide margin the Rangers never trailed in Game Four, due in large part to the play of Lundqvist, who has now won eight straight playoff elimination games at The Garden. In those eight contests he has a goals against average of 0.98 and a save percentage of .968.
The Rangers as a team have now won 11 of their last 13 playoff elimination games dating back to Game Six of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in Ottawa. Lundqvist, of course, has been their goaltender in each and every one of those games, including all five in this year's post-season run.
"It's about competing when everything is on the line and challenging yourself the right way, I guess," explained Lundqvist. "As a team, and personally, you have to go out there and leave everything out there, and be extremely focused. One mistake and the season could be over. It's exciting...it's tough out there..but it's fun."
Perhaps there was an early sign that this was going to be the Rangers night and not one for the visitors. It occurred at the 11:50 mark of the first period, eleven seconds after Mats Zuccarello took the Rangers first penalty of the game, and with the Blueshirts holding a 1-0 lead. Los Angeles defenseman Alec Martinez fired a left-wing power-play shot off Lundqvist and the puck slid slowly towards the empty net. Jeff Carter of the Kings was tied up in front, but his stick was the first to reach the puck, but it never made contact with the disc, instead waving right over it. Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman then extended his reach just as the puck settled on to the goal line and swatted it out of danger.
After the puck was frozen and the whistle blown the play was reviewed by video officials, with the video clearly showing that the puck never entirely crossed the goal line. An incredibly close call and piece of good fortune that went the Rangers away after so many bounces that had not the previous three games. And credit Stralman with perhaps the save of the night.
"It was a quick play on the puck, and I got a little lucky," offered Stralman. "I think (Marian Gaborik) was about to jump on it, and I tried to get his stick out first and just keep it there to buy myself some time for a second effort to get the puck out of there. It's one of those things where you need a little luck to succeed."
If that gem was not enough, Derek Stepan made an equally great--and timely--play on a loose puck near the goal late in the third period with the Rangers clinging to a 2-1 lead. Lundqvist thought he had made a save on an in-tight shot with 1:11 remaining in regulation, but the puck rolled behind him, slowing down and stopping in the snow right before the goal line. Before anyone could get to the loose disc, Stepan swooped in and cleared the puck away with his glove--being mindful to not close his gloved hand on the puck, thus avoiding a penalty in the crease.
"It's fortunate it was sitting right where it was, and Wes (referee Wes McAuley) did a great job of being over top of it--he saw everything that happened and made sure that I did not put my hand on it," explained Stepan. "In the end we come out of it without the puck in our net. We're just trying to do whatever we can so that we find a way to keep pucks out of our net."
It was nice to see teammates bail out Lundqvist on a night where Henrik repeatedly did the same for them. He made 11 saves in the opening period--including an alert stop on Tanner Pearson's spinning backhand shot after the LA youngster had sped around Ryan McDonagh with four minutes to play--and was even better in the second when he stopped 14 of 15 shots.
Lundqvist was challenged early in the second--making a real good save by deflecting Gaborik's rising snap shot off a left wing 2-on-1 rush just 56 seconds into the period---and late in the second--robbing Carter on a breakaway by sprawling and spreading his legs wide, while planting his left foot against the post where Carter aimed his shot. In between there were other scintillating stops by the Rangers netminder including a lunging left-toe save to deny Anze Kopitar's left-wing shorthanded blast at 6:59 and stops minutes later on breakaways for Pearson and Carter, as the Rangers defenseman repeatedly were getting beaten to the outside by these Kings forwards.
He didn't disappoint in the third period either, stopping all 15 shots he faced as New York was outshot by Los Angeles 15-1 over the final 20 minutes of play.
"When he's in that type of zone, tracking the puck like he is, there's not much that's going to get by him," defenseman Marc Staal said of Lundqvist. "(Seeing the Cup raised by the Kings) is the last thing anyone wanted to see in this room. The focus was just to get that win, and we were able to do it. It feels good, obviously, and now we're excited for a chance to go to LA and try to win another one."
After being shutout by Quick in Game Three Monday night the Rangers scored the first goal in Game Four 7:25 into the first period, just two seconds after a penalty to LA's Willie Mitchell had expired. With Mitchell just out of the box and not in the play, John Moore hammered a slap shot towards the Kings net and Pouliot neatly deflected it past Jonathan Quick for his fifth goal of the playoffs, and second of the Stanley Cup Final. It also snapped Quick's shutout string which had run 123 minutes one second.
The Rangers made it 2-0 6:27 into the second period when Martin St. Louis scored his team-leading eighth goal of the playoffs--also his second of the Cup Final against the Kings. Stepan shoveled a left wing pass towards the net and Chris Kreider tipped it wide of Quick while tied up with a Kings defenseman. St. Louis burst in from the left wing goal line and was able to get the puck past the stick of a lunging Quick, with the nervous Garden Faithful roaring in approval.
"Tonight we find a way to get a win, we roll on it, but again it doesn't really matter because we go to LA and it's all about the next game," explained Stepan, who tied for the team lead with three shots on goal.
The two-goal lead had been a curse for the Rangers earlier in the series. They had let a 2-0 lead slip away in a 3-2 Game One overtime defeat, and then had three separate two-goal advantages disappear in their 5-4 double overtime loss in Game Two.
It seemed as if that dreaded curse had made its way cross country when Dustin Brown cut the Rangers lead in half at the 8:47 mark of the second period. Dan Girardi tried to play a puck at the Kings blue line, but his stick broke in two, letting Brown take off on a breakaway which he finished for his sixth goal of the post-season.
"Yeah, I'm not going to lie, the first thought was here we go again," admitted Lundqvist postgame. "It's always mentally challenging when things happen, especially things like that. You feel like you did a lot to have it under control and you get a bad break. You just have to respond the right way and stay positive."
Certainly Lundqvist responded the right way, and as a result he will lead his team back into Los Angeles seeking another must-win victory which, if accomplished, would bring the Rangers home next Monday to host a very intriguing Game Six of this Stanley Cup Final.