Commentary

Is win New York's momentum swing?

Rangers get some luck in their favor in Game 4, still need better overall play

Updated: June 12, 2014, 2:00 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Stretch your thumb and your forefinger as far as you can. That's the amount of space that separates new life and a Stanley Cup celebration.

That's the distance that two pucks on two separate occasions in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals needed to travel to make the Los Angeles Kings champions for the second time in three years.

But those pucks, one in the first period with the New York Rangers nursing a 1-0 lead and the other late in the third period and the Rangers hanging on for dear life to a 2-1 lead, did not travel that distance.

Instead defenseman Anton Stralman somehow kept snipers Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik from pushing the puck home and tying the score in the first period. And then with 1:11 left in regulation, Derek Stepan gently pushed the lonely puck away from the goal line and back into netminder Henrik Lundqvist's pads while Carter and Anze Kopitar tried desperately to jam the puck those last few inches to force overtime.

"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 defenseman Marc Staal said.

[+] EnlargeAnton Stralman
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesAnton Stralman managed to stave off Jeff Carter and keep the puck out of the net in the first period.
"If they get that [first] one, they have that momentum, and we were able to make a stand long enough that they didn't. And when they got some chances, Hank was there to make some big saves. He's big-time," Staal said.

Stepan recounted how he'd made sure not to close his hand over the puck as it sat tantalizingly behind Lundqvist, just short of the goal line.

"Obviously, I just don't want it to go in the net. I was just trying to do whatever I can to stop it. After I push it back under him, I just don't know where it's going or what's going to happen, so it was kind of a lucky play," he said.

Funny how these things go, no?

Through the first three games of this finals series, especially the first two games in Los Angeles, the Rangers bemoaned their lack of "puck luck," the bounces that didn't go their way and somehow all seemed to go the Kings' way. That allowed Los Angeles to win twice in overtime en route to building a 3-0 series lead.

Then, in a game the Rangers really had no business winning -- not just because of the two close calls, but because they were by far the second-best team on the ice in every area but goaltending -- they earned a little karmic love.

"We probably play our worst game of the series and we win. Whatever it takes to win you know? So we'll take that for sure," Mats Zuccarello said. "It's a nice win, team effort. And we didn't play our best hockey. We probably played better than them the two or three first games but we didn't get a win so we'll take it for sure."

He's right about the Rangers playing their worst game. After being shut out 3-0 in Game 3 and having failed to score a goal since the second period of Game 2 when they took a 4-2 lead, the Rangers desperately needed to score first.

They got that goal when Benoit Pouliot tipped home a John Moore point shot. And they got what had previously been a cursed two-goal lead when Martin St. Louis finished off a nice three-way passing play with Stepan and Chris Kreider, who has been seen little since missing a handful of glorious chances in the double-overtime loss in Game 2.

But the Kings, who must have quietly grown weary of hearing the Rangers talk about how they felt they'd deserved better in Games 1 and 2 (when they'd also enjoyed multiple two-goal leads), continued to pound away at the Rangers. They got one back when New York's Dan Girardi continued his grisly final series, suffering a broken stick and seeing Dustin Brown race by him to score on a nice deke before the second period had reached its midpoint.

[+] EnlargeDerek Stepan
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesDerek Stepan had Henrik Lundqvist's back in the third period, aided by some much-needed "puck luck."
A pall fell over Madison Square Garden. What were the chances the Rangers could somehow coax a victory out of this game without scoring at least one more? Slim? Less than slim? The Kings' relentlessness continued into the third. They recorded 15 shots in the final frame, 30 over the last two periods, while allowing the Rangers a single shot in the third. And that shot came from center ice.

Didn't matter, though. Lundqvist and more than a little of that elusive puck luck sent the Rangers back to Los Angeles for Game 5 Friday night.

On the event level of Madison Square Garden, dozens of family and friends of Kings players, flown in for a potential Cup celebration, made their way out of the building and presumably back to L.A., where the Kings will get a chance to win a second Cup on home ice. Many of them, no doubt, were wondering why those pucks, heck even one of them, couldn't have traveled an extra two or three inches.

A short distance away in a Rangers locker room crowded with journalists there was a palpable sense of relief, yes, but no regrets, no sheepishness. Even Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault seemed to empathize a bit with the Kings and their disappointment.

"Well, it was a real tough game I think for L.A. It was probably their best game of the playoffs that they've played against us," Vigneault said. "I thought we were real good until they scored their first goal, their only goal, when Dan broke his stick. I thought after that we weren't maybe as efficient as we had been until that time.

"But our guys competed. I mean, they're a real good team. They threw everything they had at us. Our goaltender stood tall, gave us a chance. We have another chance. We get to play," the coach said.

He has been down this road before, of course, having coached the Vancouver Canucks when they led 2-0 and 3-2 against Boston and couldn't close the deal. He and the rest of the Rangers understand that they got away with one in Game 4, but they also felt they were owed one. That debt has been paid, and they are now 11-2 in their past 13 games facing elimination, including 5-0 this season.

If they're going to put a little more of a scare into the Kings they'll need to keep getting that puck luck and play as well as they did in Games 1 and 2.

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