© Associated Press photo
New York Rangers center Brad Richards (19) vies for the puck against Los Angeles Kings center Tyler Toffoli (73) in the first period during Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final, Wednesday, June 11.
NEW YORK — Even the King at his best needed some help to keep the Kings from lifting the Stanley Cup at Madison Square Garden.
Henrik Lundqvist got that in the form of season-saving plays by Anton Stralman and Derek Stepan on the goal-line and did the rest himself, willing the New York Rangers to a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of the Cup final Wednesday night to stave off elimination and forced a Game 5 back in Los Angeles.
“When you play this game, you have to battle, but then you have to rely on your teammates,” Lundqvist said. “Sometimes you have to rely on some luck. Tonight we had it a couple times.”
Lundqvist finished with 40 saves on 41 shots to extend his streak of home elimination-game wins to eight. Along the way he kept the Kings at bay with the kind of performance that his teammates have come to expect.
“It was pretty self-explanatory out there,” defenceman Dan Girardi said. “He was the King tonight for us, making huge saves when he had to.”
The most memorable saves, though, came from Stralman in the first period and Stepan with just over a minute left in the third.
Midway through the first period with the Rangers up 1-0 on a deflection goal by Benoit Pouliot, Kings defenceman Alec Martinez thought he had scored. Instead, Stralman batted the puck off the goal-line after first lifting Jeff Carter’s stick out of the way.
“I just saw the puck and all I tried to do basically was get the stick out, and obviously the puck as well,” Stralman said. “It’s one of those things, you need a little luck to kind of succeed with.”
Luck, some quick reflexes and enough wherewithal not to knock the puck in while trying to avoid what could’ve been a disastrous goal against for the Rangers.
“A lot of times you start panicking and you end up whacking it in your own net, and we did a good job of being calm when it was sitting there, and getting it back underneath Hank for a whistle,” Rangers defenceman Marc Staal said. “If they get that one, they have that momentum, and we were able to make a stand long enough that they didn’t.”
The one-goal lead that stood up thanks to Stralman became two, New York’s fifth of that kind in this Cup final, when Martin St. Louis scored 6:27 into the second.
A bad bounce in a series full of them for the Rangers led to Kings captain Dustin Brown scoring just two minutes 19 seconds later. The knob of Girardi’s stick appeared to break, springing Brown for the breakaway goal at 8:46.
After the Rangers blew two-goal leads in each of Games 1 and 2, Lundqvist couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again.”
From that point on, the Rangers just tried to hang on. They were outshot 27-6 from the point St. Louis scored to make it 2-0 until the clock hit zeros at the end of the third.
“You’re trying to tell your players not to play on their heels, keep managing the puck, let’s make plays,” relieved coach Alain Vigneault said. “They came at us real hard. Fortunately we were able to stand tall, bend not break. When we did bend a little bit more, our goaltender made some big saves.”
Then Stepan saved the hockey season with 1:11 left in the third. Again Martinez put the puck on net for a scoring chance that probably should have gone in, and after Tanner Pearson deflected it under Lundqvist it rolled slowly through the crease until it stopped centimetres from the line.
It was the snow that stopped the puck there. And while Vigneault joked, “Thank God for soft ice now and then,” Lundqvist had an explanation for what felt like a miracle on 33rd Street.
“It’s probably the product of moving a lot,” said Lundqvist, who made 15 third-period saves while New York managed just one shot. “I stay deep in the net, so there’s a lot of snow there.”
Lundqvist was yelling at Wes McCauley to blow his whistle, but the referee who’s considered one of, if not the best, in the NHL had perfect positioning and saw the puck the entire time.
“Then I realized it was behind me for a couple seconds,” Lundqvist said. “I actually apologized. But he was cool about it.”
Stepan was even cooler under that pressure. Knowing full well he couldn’t cover the puck with his hand, lest a penalty shot be awarded, the Rangers centre used his glove to sweep it under Lundqvist just as Stralman did earlier with his stick.
“Those are the big plays we need at certain moments to keep the momentum or shift the momentum,” Stepan said. “Obviously, I just don’t want it to go in the net. I was just trying to do whatever I can to stop it.”
Stepan used the word of the night to describe that play: lucky. Drew Doughty probably had a different reaction when he looked up to the video screen to see what happened.
“There were two like that tonight,” Doughty said. “That was the difference in the game.”
For days the Rangers expressed confidence in their own play at the same time as they lamented not getting breaks in this series. Bounces cost them in overtime in Los Angeles and even in the 3-0 loss in Game 3.
This time it was Pearson saying that the Kings were “that close. If we put those in or tap those in, it’s a whole different hockey game.”
Instead, it was the Rangers’ eighth straight victory when facing elimination at home. And it was the kind of win that had Vigneault hoping it was just the start of more.
“We got a few bounces,” Vigneault said. “You need those. Maybe the luck is changing a little bit.”
But this wasn’t just luck. It was Lundqvist.
The 32-year-old entered the night with a 0.98 goals-against average and .967 save percentage in the previous seven elimination possibilities at the Garden. There’s just something about these situations that brings out the best in Lundqvist.
“When everything is on the line, you just have to challenge yourself the right way, I guess, as a team and personally,” he said. “You have to go out there and leave everything out there and be extremely focused. One mistake and the season is over. You’re definitely aware of that.”
Lundqvist didn’t make mistakes and in the process at least delayed the Kings’ party until Friday, when Game 5 takes place at Staples Center. Had Los Angeles finished off the sweep, it would’ve marked the second Cup in franchise history on the two-year anniversary of the first.
“It is an opportunity lost,” Brown said.
It was actually an opportunity Lundqvist yearned to take away from the Kings. No team had been swept in the Cup final since the 1998 Washington Capitals, and it would’ve been the first time a visiting team celebrated this championship at the Garden since 1972.
“We didn’t want to see the Cup coming out on our home ice tonight,” Lundqvist said. “Yeah, just the thought of it makes me feel sick.”
Instead of feeling sick, the Rangers feel alive. They’re facing the same three games to one series deficit they came back from two rounds ago against the Pittsburgh Penguins and have some life.
Thanks to luck — and Lundqvist.
“He’s a great goalie and a big part of our success,” St. Louis said. “For us, we believe in him. He’s a big reason why we’re here.”
NOTES — Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick made 17 saves on 19 shots, beaten on a double deflection on Pouliot’s goal and then a shot from in close on St. Louis’. Quick stopped all 32 shots he faced in the Game 3 shutout. ... Brad Richards played just 13:20, including 9:22 at even strength, as he was demoted to the fourth line. ... Dan Carcillo was a healthy scratch for the Rangers despite being eligible to return from a six-game suspension for shoving an official during the Eastern Conference final. ... Kings defenceman Robyn Regehr, who has been out more than five weeks with an undisclosed injury, was scratched again as coach Darryl Sutter went with the same lineup from the first three games of the series. ... New Knicks coach Derek Fisher, who played in Los Angeles with the Lakers, was in attendance, wearing orange and blue.