|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
LOS ANGELES -- Regardless of the plucky -- did someone from the back of the room in Los Angeles yell out "lucky?" -- effort from the New York Rangers in extending the Stanley Cup finals with a nail-biting 2-1 victory in Game 4, there remains a sense of the inevitable.
It's not just that the Los Angeles Kings continue to lead the finals 3-1 with a chance to wrap up their second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons at home in Game 5 Friday night, although that's part of it; it's the track the series has followed.
The Rangers played their best games in Los Angeles and lost twice in overtime. The Kings have further separated themselves from the Rangers in the past two games, a 3-0 victory in Game 3 and Wednesday's peculiar loss.
You can call it puck luck finally going the Rangers' way or can decipher it any way you want, but the Kings did not for a moment look in Game 4 like a team that is taking anything for granted.
That's bad news for the Rangers because moving the machinery of the Stanley Cup finals -- the families and friends of the Kings who crowded in to Madison Square Garden hoping for a celebration Wednesday; the reporters, broadcasters, players, gear and, yes, the transferal of all the Stanley Cup dreams that still exist on both sides of the ice -- is merely a formality.
"Just win. That's with a big period and exclamation point after it," said Kings winger Justin Williams, who is among a handful of Kings in contention to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with his 24 points, tied with teammate Jeff Carter and two behind Anze Kopitar, the postseason scoring leader.
|The Rangers barely held on against a late push from the Kings at the end of Game 4.|
"Puck luck is for copouts. I don't believe in that at all," Williams said Thursday. "I'm a true believer that you get what you put into it. Last night, we simply weren't good enough and we didn't get paid off."
The Rangers' task is relatively simple. They have to be as fast and effective and opportunistic as they were in Games 1 and 2 when they jumped on the Kings early and opened two-goal leads, and they have to have the mental toughness to play an entire game without wobbling.
Do they have such a game in them?
Watching them hang on in the third period in Game 4, allowing wave after wave of Kings to test heroic Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist while managing one pathetic shot on goal from the neutral zone, it's hard to imagine it could happen.
"I think they still have the upper hand," said defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who had a strong game in Game 4 after coughing up a puck for a crucial Kings goal in Game 3.
"They're one win away; we've got a lot more work to do. For us, we're just trying to focus on playing a solid game, being competitive out there and giving ourselves a chance to be successful."
Martin St. Louis is one of only two Rangers with a Stanley Cup ring (the other is his former Tampa Bay teammate Brad Richards, with whom he won a championship in 2004). He scored the winner in Game 4 but understands the dynamics at play.
"You're down 3-0, you just want that clock to go down to zero," St. Louis said Thursday. "You don't want to make a mistake. We found a way yesterday, but we know we're going to have to be better and we're going to have to manage those situations tomorrow night."
The Rangers have managed to avoid the stigma of being swept. But history will judge them with appropriate harshness, if not complete disregard, if they cannot solve the Kings in Game 5.
If they allow the series to play out the way it feels like it is going to, the Rangers will have merely reinforced that the Eastern Conference is a second-tier conference and that their appearance in this final series was simply a function of a series of fortunate happenings.
It might be unfair, but it is so.
The New Jersey Devils faced a similar dynamic two years ago when they trailed the Kings 3-0 after losing the first two games on home ice in overtime before finally stealing Game 4 in Los Angeles. Instead of exhaling and letting the series end in Game 5, the Devils forced a sixth game that was decided early when Steve Bernier took a major penalty for crushing Rob Scuderi into the end boards and the Kings scored three straight power-play goals.
For Devils defenseman Andy Greene, the current finals series has brought back memories of the Devils' own journey, although it hasn't prompted a lot of empathy one way or the other.
The Kings, of course, are the team that denied the Devils a championship in 2012, and the Rangers are the Devils' longtime arch foes.
It's hard watching two teams play for something you'd like dearly to be playing for, Greene told ESPN.com on Thursday from his offseason home in Michigan.
"It's not really an easy one for us to watch and stomach," he said.
But he acknowledged parallels between this series and the one two years ago. The Devils, like the Rangers, felt they deserved a better fate, having dropped the first two games in overtime.
The Devils' victory in Game 4, "obviously that's the pride factor, right?" Greene said. "You didn't want to be that team that gets swept in the Stanley Cup final."
Game 5, though, that's when the Devils started to feel as though they were capable of something special.
It didn't turn out that way, and, whether it was a six-game set or not, Greene points out the obvious: There is little solace in losing at any point in the finals.
It will no doubt be the same for the Rangers, although they still have something to say about how they will be remembered.
"We wanted a 'W.' We know there are some things we can correct, but we gave ourselves a chance to play another game in the Stanley Cup final," Rangers forward Carl Hagelin said Thursday.
"Our plan is to win that game tomorrow. We did a really good job getting the 'W'. It wasn't pretty, but we found a way. Our plan is to do the same thing tomorrow."