New York, New York. The city so nice, they played here twice.
Wait, I may have gotten that line wrong. Which would be fitting, given that so many of us got much of this Stanley Cup final wrong too. Like most, I picked the Kings to win, but I figured it would be a long series in which L.A. controlled the play but New York held on thanks to a pronounced goaltending edge. Instead, the Rangers went into last night having been every bit as good or better than the Kings for long stretches, but on the verge of being swept anyway thanks largely to Jonathan Quick’s brilliance.
In last night’s Game 4, the script finally held. The Kings were dominant, coming at the Rangers in waves and eventually outshooting them 41-19. But this time it was Henrik Lundqvist who slammed the door, keeping the Rangers alive.
And because of that, we’re headed back to L.A. for Game 5 Friday night. If the Kings win, they lift the Cup on home ice. If they lose, what seemed like a sure thing this time yesterday suddenly gets really, really interesting.
I spent the week in New York, covering Games 3 and 4 and all the talk in between. Here are 10 quasi-related dispatches from the City That Never Sweeps.
1. It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good
Most playoff series end up being defined by a theme, and this one was shaping up as a battle between two contenders. In one corner: puck luck, specifically the Rangers’ almost total lack of it when it mattered. In the other: the dreaded two-goal lead and the Kings’ continuing ability to overcome it.
Last night, both themes got flipped. The Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead for the third time in the series, thanks to a nifty first-period deflection by Benoit Pouliot and a Martin St. Louis rebound goal in the second. That led to lots of cracks about the Kings having them right where they wanted them, and Rangers fans weren’t laughing when Dustin Brown cut the lead to one on a short-handed breakaway.
But this time the lead held. And it held in part thanks to an almost extraordinary sequence late in the third that saw a puck squeeze by Lundqvist only to die in a pile of ice shavings on the goal line. Derek Stepan had the presence of mind to swat the puck away with his hand without covering it,1 and the Rangers survived. It echoed a similar play in the first, in which Jeff Carter somehow couldn’t get a stick on another goal-line puck.
Which would have been a penalty shot.
After the game, Kings captain Dustin Brown didn’t want to talk about bad luck. “You make your own bounces this time of year,” he told us. And then he repeated himself, in slightly different words, when asked about it again. New reporters would arrive and ask yet again, and by the third or fourth time through the same question, he seemed almost pained.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, not surprisingly, was in a somewhat better mood when the topic came up. “I’ve been in the game a long time to know that sometimes the hockey gods are there,” he said. “They were there tonight.”
2. The Series of Girardi’s Discontent
The luck didn’t all go the Rangers’ way. Brown’s breakaway came after Dan Girardi’s stick decided that a harmless-looking offensive zone pass attempt would be a good time to explode. Brown picked up the puck and skated in alone, beating Lundqvist on a slick move that left the Rangers goalie tumbling backward into his own net.
It was just the latest forgettable moment in what has become a brutal series for Girardi, who’s usually a dependable defensive presence. His fanned clearing attempt led to Justin Williams’s overtime winner in Game 1, and he’s spent most of the series looking slow, indecisive, and vulnerable, to the extent that you start to wonder if he’s hurt. None of that has gone unnoticed by Rangers fans, who spent much of the game politely encouraging him to play better.
Part of me was relieved to see Girardi avoid wearing the goat horns in another loss. The other part shudders to think what the hockey gods have in store for him tomorrow.
3. All’s Quiet on the MSG Front
When they weren’t telling Girardi where to go, Rangers fans spent much of the two games being … well, “quiet” would be the wrong word. But any expectations that a city that hadn’t seen a Cup final game in 20 years would blow the roof off the Garden were dashed early in Game 3, and even in last night’s win the decibel level never quite got beyond above average.
That’s not to say Rangers fans weren’t heard from. They made sure to let the referees know whenever they’d missed a call, which according to the crowd happened roughly every few seconds. But the overwhelming wave of sound never came, and I heard from plenty of Rangers fans who told me not to hold my breath that it would. Call me optimistic, but if we’re back here on Monday, I wouldn’t rule it out.
4. After Further Review …
Katie Baker and I ended up having an interesting neighbor for Games 3 and 4: the NHL’s instant-replay booth. And when Carter’s opening goal in Game 3 and his near-miss in Game 4 both went to review, it was impossible to resist the temptation to lean over to take a look inside, despite what we calculated as a roughly 30 percent chance that I’d topple out of my seat and plunge into the Rangers fans below.
I’m not sure what I expected to see. Gary Bettman twirling a mustache and laughing maniacally while thumbing through The Big Book of NHL Conspiracies would have been nice. No such luck. It’s just a lot of guys staring very intently at a lot of television screens, trying to figure out exactly what happened.
Kind of like most Rangers fans through the first three games, come to think of it. Just with a lot less swearing.
5. The Long Road to Acceptance
When we weren’t watching the teams trade bad breaks, we spent most of the days wandering the hallways of Madison Square Garden, taking various opportunities to listen to the players expound on the series. On Tuesday, that meant a lot of time spent around very depressed New York Rangers.
There’s an undeniable awkwardness that comes with being down 3-0 in a playoff series. You’re going to lose.2 Everyone knows you’re going to lose. You’re not allowed to say it, because that would be giving up, but you’re not allowed to deny it, either, because that would make you sound delusional. It all adds up to a lot of vague talk about not being where you wanted to be, followed by a dejected shrug.
Yes, a few teams have pulled off the comeback, including this year’s Kings in the first round against the Sharks. If before Game 4 there was anyone in New York who thought the Rangers could do it, too, I didn’t find them.
I’m not sure where the Rangers wanted to be on Tuesday, but it wasn’t at MSG dealing with the media. I talked to reporters who’d covered playoff series for their whole lives, and almost all noted how uniquely bummed out the Rangers seemed. You wouldn’t think that any team in New York’s situation would be happy about it, of course, but you might expect some effort in masking the depths of the despair. There was some of that, the usual “we just have to win one game at a time” talk, but most of it was delivered by monotone players staring sadly off into the middle distance.
Vigneault was asked about the mood and didn’t sugarcoat it. “We’re down 3-0. We’re all lacking sleep. This is tough,” he said. “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.”
Toward the end of his answer, Vigneault tossed in a small note of defiance, tacking on a steely “I can tell you, we’re going to show up.” That’s what passes for optimism when you’re down 3-0: a promise that your team will fulfill its obligation to physically arrive at the next game.
For what it’s worth, the Rangers were in a slightly better mood as yesterday began. They were in an even better mood once it ended.
6. The Tao of Sutter
No less awkward: talking to players on the team that’s up 3-0. Hockey players are well trained to never say anything that their opponents could use as bulletin-board material,3 and that’s especially true for a Kings team that has largely taken on coach Darryl Sutter’s personality. They treat the appearance of a camera or notepad like the critical hand of a high-stakes poker game; they’d probably do every interview wearing hoods and oversize sunglasses if the NHL would let them.
Well, at least not their current opponent. The ones you beat three rounds ago? No mercy.
Matt Greene prefaced every answer with a long pause that suggested he was mentally compiling and ranking a list of the dumbest questions he’d heard all week. Jeff Carter answers are so laconic that I’d start referring to his spot on the podium as Dry Island if that weren’t already taken. And when it comes to doing interviews, I’m not completely convinced that Quick is even technically alive.
Ironically, Sutter himself had a few moments of genuine levity between games. Well, “levity” might be too strong a word. But he managed to work in a facial expression or two, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy a Tuesday question about which player he’d coached or played with who most reminded him of Williams. He stalled and eventually came up empty, but promised to think about it and get back to us with a worthy answer.
He did, the next day: Williams is Martin Gelinas. Presumably with the added bonus that his Cup final game-winning goals actually count.
7. The Domination of Manifest Destiny
A Kings win Friday would wrap up a season in which the Western Conference dominated yet again. We covered this phenomenon back in October, when the West was riding a streak of 12 consecutive years with a collective winning record against the East. You can now make that 13 straight, thanks to a 246-202 Western advantage this season, and if this series holds, that’s the last three Cups and six of the last eight.
It’s a disparity that hung over the playoffs; despite three rounds that had the 2014 postseason in the discussion for best ever, you always wondered if the final would be a dud, as a Western powerhouse ran over the Eastern representative. That hasn’t exactly ended up happening, but if the Kings can close tomorrow, it’s possible the series ends up being remembered that way just the same.
The odds say that the pendulum will swing back the other way and the East will catch up eventually. In the meantime, let’s take a moment to remember that a crossover semifinal could have given us a Blackhawks-Kings final.
8. Let’s Be Honest, Brooms Suck
Another trend that will continue: the lack of Stanley Cup final sweeps. The league hasn’t seen one since enduring four straight from 1995 through 1998. That was right at the height of the dead puck era, by the way. The mid-’90s were awful.
The Rangers dodged that fate last night, and a potential bad omen with it. While the first of those four teams, the ’95 Red Wings, never missed a beat and were back in the final in time to win back-to-back Cups in 1997 and 1998, the other three weren’t so lucky. The ’97 Flyers made it out of the first round only once in the next five seasons; the ’98 Capitals missed the playoffs the next year and didn’t win another series for more than a decade; and the ’96 Panthers haven’t won a single one since.
9. Don’t Count On a Rangers Repeat
As any final draws to a close, it’s impossible not to look ahead and try to figure out whether either team has a chance to be back.
In the Kings’ case, it’s easy: They absolutely do. Los Angeles and Chicago have established themselves as the top two teams in the West, and while that doesn’t guarantee another Cup run in either team’s future, other teams know that the path to get here next year goes through them.
New York is a bit trickier. Their cap situation is potentially tight, and it’s not exactly a young roster; key players like Girardi, St. Louis, and Brad Richards are on the wrong side of 30, and Rick Nash will join them next week. But there are some good young players in place, and the expected Richards buyout should give them enough room to add a piece or two. And, of course, Lundqvist is locked up for the rest of his career (and maybe beyond).
New York won’t be the favorites in the East next year; that will be the Bruins. And depending on what the Penguins do this offseason, the Rangers may not even be considered the best team in their division. But it’s not hard to imagine the Rangers making another run or two before their window closes.
10. Balancing the Scales of Luck
Finally, one last point on the luck narrative before we bury it (until the next bad bounce). Many fans, especially those rooting for the Kings, seemed bothered by the whole concept. And at some point along the way, the luck talk morphed into the idea that the Rangers were complaining, or somehow denying the Kings’ proper credit.
Based on what I saw, that’s not fair. Rangers players weren’t so much complaining as stating the obvious (or, in many cases, agreeing with the obvious once somebody else brought it up). There was no self-pity on display, and if they didn’t seem willing to give the Kings their due before the series was over, we can probably chalk that up to some old-fashioned competitiveness.
The Rangers got some bad luck in this series. It’s not the only reason they lost, and it’s not like they didn’t have their share of good luck on their road to the final,4 but that doesn’t change the fact that for three games the Kings got the bounces when they needed them. That was undeniably true. But it wasn’t an excuse, and the Rangers never made it one.
Including facing not one but two backup goalies along the way.