NEW YORK — The Stanley Cup never made it. The holy grail sat in a black crate in the back of a Honda Odyssey. Late in the third period Wednesday night, the minivan backed up from 33rd Street, up the curving ramp inside Madison Square Garden. With about two minutes to go, it stopped short of the fifth floor, ice level. It waited on standby, just in case.
Seconds later and yards away, the Los Angeles Kings’ Alec Martinez whirled and fired a shot from the point. Teammate Tanner Pearson deflected it. The puck slipped between the pads of New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and headed for the goal line. Had it gone in, the Kings would have tied the game – coming back from yet another two-goal deficit – with 1:11 remaining in regulation. They would have had a chance to sweep the Rangers, take out the Cup and parade it around the ice.
But the puck slowed … and slowed … and stopped in the snow, its back edge a fraction of an inch from the goal line.
“Thank god,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, “for soft ice now and then.”
Rangers center Derek Stepan reached down with his left hand. In that split-second, he knew he couldn’t close his hand on the puck – penalty shot – so he used his glove to shovel the puck into Lundqvist as a pile of players crashed the net. He pushed it again, and again, and finally the whistle blew. The Rangers stayed alive with a 2-1 victory, and the Cup went back down the ramp, out of sight, headed to L.A. for Game 5 on Friday night.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to stop it,” Stepan said. “After I pushed it back under him, I just don’t know where it’s going or what’s going to happen. It’s kind of a lucky play.”
“Maybe the luck is changing a little bit,” Vigneault said.
Maybe. The Rangers had cursed their luck before this. A bad call had turned Game 2. Bad bounces and great goaltending by the Kings’ Jonathan Quick had cost them Game 3. On Tuesday, their attitude was about as dismal as you’ll ever see from a team that had yet to be eliminated. They felt they did not deserve to face a 3-0 series deficit, and so they didn’t fake positivity or rely on cliches. Brad Richards, their acting captain, said he couldn’t lie. It was hard to be upbeat.
But the hockey gods must have decided they weren’t ready for summer. The Kings played what Vigneault called their best game of the series; the Rangers played what New York winger Mats Zuccarello called their worst. The Kings outshot the Rangers by a 41-19 margin – 15-1 in the third period. But this time, the Rangers got the majority of the breaks and great goaltending from Lundqvist.
“That’s the way it’s been going,” said Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. “You play a good game, you lose. You have a decent game, and your goalie keeps you in there, makes some huge saves, and you get the win.”
That puck that just … stopped behind Lundqvist? That was the secondpuck to do that for the Rangers. With New York holding a 1-0 lead on a beautiful deflection by Benoit Pouliot, Martinez fired from the left circle in the first period. The puck leaked through Lundqvist and … stopped right on top of the goal line. The Kings’ Jeff Carter swung at the puck; the Rangers’ Anton Stralman swung at Carter’s stick. Carter whiffed; Stralman ended up clearing it.
“I got a little lucky,” Stralman said, “and was able to save it.”
Kings winger Marian Gaborik almost tied the game early in the second but hit the crossbar. Then Martin St-Louis gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead by knocking a rebound past Quick’s outstretched stick. In Game 3, Quick makes that miraculous save. In Game 4, it’s a goal.
The Kings did get a break after that, when Girardi tried to make a pass at the L.A. blue line and the wooden knob came off his composite stick. He threw his stick in disgust and stopped skating in futility as Kings captain Dustin Brown broke away, stickhandled, deked Lundqvist and cut the Rangers’ lead to 2-1.
“All you could do was laugh,” said Girardi, who did not find it funny in the least. “It was a little bit outrageous, I think.”
“I’m not going to lie,” Lundqvist said. “The first thought was, ‘Here we go again.’ ”
That was it, though. The Kings took over for the rest of the second. Their Black Aces started playing soccer in the hallway during the second intermission, working out nervous energy, hoping to put on their uniforms for a Cup celebration. The Kings dominated the third. But the Rangers had Lundqvist and just enough snow. Just enough.
“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.”
The odds still heavily favor the Kings. The Rangers have to win Game 5 just to make this a series, forcing the Kings to come back to MSG and win Game 6 to avoid an anything-can-happen Game 7.
But at least the Rangers won their eighth straight home game when facing elimination, setting an NHL record that had stood since the 1950s. At least they made the minivan carry the Cup back down the ramp. At least they left commissioner Gary Bettman checking his phone in the Zamboni entrance instead of grabbing the microphone on the red carpet. At least they left the Kings’ family and friends huddled behind blue curtains in the basement instead of partying under the bright lights.
“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.”
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