NEW YORK — Glassy eyes. Sunken faces. Scruffy beards. The New York Rangers looked like hell Tuesday because they were living through hell – the hockey version, anyway. You work your butt off for nine months. You overcome a slow start, adjust to a new coach, climb back into the playoff race, trade your captain, win three rounds and make the Stanley Cup Final. You have a chance to achieve your childhood dream. You go toe-to-toe with the Los Angeles Kings. You’re close, so close.
And you’re one loss from getting swept, anyway.
“It’s not like we’ve been outplayed here,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “That’s not been the case. They’ve been good, but I think we’ve been playing pretty good as well. It comes down to a couple plays here and there. That’s been the difference in these games.”
This series was supposed to be lopsided – the favored Kings from the stronger West vs. the underdog Rangers from the weaker East. To be clear, the Kings are the better team overall, and their 3-0 lead is no fluke, no surprise. The Rangers caught plenty of breaks on the way here. But this series has not been as lopsided as expected, and the way it has gone has been excruciating for the Rangers.
By several measures, this series has been remarkably even. With the teams 5-on-5 and the score close (tied in any period or within a goal in the first and second), the Kings have had 50.7 percent of the shot attempts, the Rangers 49.3. The teams are tied in goals, 4-4. In all situations, the Rangers have had 51.4 percent of the shot attempts, the Kings 48.6. But the Kings have outscored the Rangers, 11-6.
Except for one period – the third period of Game 1, in which the Kings outshot the Rangers 20-3 – the Rangers have been as good or better than the Kings. Yet they blew a 2-0 lead and lost Game 1 in overtime, 3-2. Yet they blew leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 and lost Game 2 in double overtime, 5-4. Yet they lost Game 3, 3-0.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t happen,” said center Brad Richards, the acting captain. “I can’t tell you honestly that I think we feel like we should be down 3-0. But it doesn’t really matter if I say that or not, because we are.
“We’ve done a lot of good things. They’ve just done it a little bit better, or when they get a bounce, they bury it. We’ve turned pucks over, they’ve turned pucks over. But for some reason, it seems like ours are finding the way into the net. Their turnovers, there’s a big save or something close.”
The Rangers should blame themselves for a lot of things, especially for blowing those leads in Games 1 and 2. But they can also blame a bad call, bad bounces and great goaltending. Game 2 turned early in the third period, when a puck went in off L.A.’s Dwight King as he tangled in the crease with New York’s Ryan McDonagh. Lundqvist wasn’t able to make the save, but referee Dan O’Halloran did not call goalie interference. The Rangers had several Grade A scoring chances in the first overtime that night but couldn’t capitalize. A puck rolled off a stick. A puck hit a post. A puck missed high. A puck missed wide. Jonathan Quick robbed a rebound chance.
“It’s hockey,” said winger Chris Kreider, who had three of those chances. “It’s not always fair.”
It got worse in Game 3. The Rangers outshot the Kings, 32-15. But while Quick made two spectacular saves by putting his stick between the puck and an open net, Lundqvist could not catch a break. Dan Girardi went down to block a passing lane, not even a shot, and the puck went off his skate, took a right turn, nicked Lundqvist’s glove and tucked under the crossbar with 0.7 seconds left in the first period. That kind of thing gives you nightmares.
“Half an inch lower, or half an inch higher,” Girardi said. “Either it goes over my skate and Hank makes the stop, or it hits my blade full and it’s a blocked shot. It’s tough to swallow. But just really nothing I could do about it. You feel a little helpless.”
A point shot hit Martin St-Louis in the slot in the second period, and it skipped off the ice, through a screen and past Lundqvist. A pass hit McDonagh and bounced right back to a Kings player on a 2-on-1 rush, catching Lundqvist sliding the wrong way. Easy goal. That’s not X’s and O’s. That’s OMG WTF.
“I’d love to take a wrist shot that goes off a knee of the other player and in,” Richards said. “You can’t draw that up. The first one goes off Dan’s heel? I mean, you can’t draw those things up. You keep repeating the process and firing more on net, and you expect eventually something’s going to go in.”
That’s the heart of this. That’s what really hurts the Rangers. This is modern hockey, when salaries are capped, the talent is evenly distributed, the coaching is sophisticated and the stats are advanced. Possession is the key. You’re supposed to get the puck, keep the puck and shoot the puck more than your opponent. You’re supposed to trust that will lead to results. Over time, it usually does. But there is little time in a playoff series, and when there is so little difference between teams, randomness can play even more of a role.
The Rangers have held their own against the best possession team in the NHL in recent years. But they haven’t gotten results, and time is already running out, and now they have to stick with the very process that hasn’t paid off for them. They can take heart that they have been right there; they can lose heart that it hasn’t mattered.
“You always say you earn your luck by working hard and making good decisions,” Lundqvist said.
“I don’t know,” he said, as if his faith was shaken. “I look at the goals obviously yesterday, and it’s some skill, yeah, but there’s some luck, too. Again, I’m not going to take anything away from them. They’ve been playing well. They’re a really good team. They’re the best team we’ve played so far. If we don’t play our absolute best, we’re not going to beat them. You know, we’re going to have to play really well, and we’re going to have to rely on some luck, as well, in some situations. That’s just the way it goes. That’s the way the game is played.”
That’s hockey. It’s not always fair.
“We’re all lacking sleep,” said coach Alain Vigneault, his voice raspy. “This is tough. I didn’t expect my players today to be cheery and upbeat. We’re in the Stanley Cup Final, and we’re down, 3-0. You don’t get a lot of these opportunities. Excuse us if today we’re not real cheery. But tomorrow I can tell you we’re going to show up.”
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