Frantic seconds were ticking away in the third period, and the hockey world was waiting.
The Los Angeles Kings were going to tie the game, force overtime and probably sweep the New York Rangers from the playoffs.
Why did so many believe this was an inevitable conclusion right up until the buzzer sounded to end that hope as the Rangers celebrated a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final? Because the Kings believed it.
That, and the fact they’ve willed it to happen so many times already this spring.
Goals from Martin St. Louis and Benoit Pouliot and a stellar 40-save performance from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on Wednesday night provided a nice moment for the Rangers and their fans at Madison Square Garden.
But it’s one win. They need three more to overcome the bleak odds and claim the Stanley Cup.
|Three-game comebacks in the NHL playoffs|
|1942||Toronto Maple Leafs||Detroit Red Wings|
|1975||New York Islanders||Pittsburgh Penguins|
|2010||Philadelphia Flyers||Boston Bruins|
|2014||Los Angeles Kings||San Jose Sharks|
Considering how well the Western Conference champs played and how calm they appeared after the contest, it would be premature to expect the Kings will be rattled in any way. Their confidence remains intact. Their mission remains the same: Win one more game and take home the Stanley Cup for a second time in three seasons.
Asked in his postgame podium appearance aired live on the NHL Network about any possibility of momentum carrying over for the Rangers, Kings coach Darryl Sutter seemed to suppress a chuckle.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve been asked 20-some times in the playoffs already. There’s momentum in games, but I don’t think it goes any further than that.”
Some who watched the Kings win four straight against the San Jose Sharks in the first round to erase a 3-0 deficit this spring might suggest otherwise, but there’s no realistic reason to believe something that has happened just four times in National Hockey League history will take place for a second time in the same postseason.
The Kings climbed back against the Sharks because the Men in Teal were playing scared. Talking about what was on the line hours before the Rangers’ win, Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told The Canadian Press (via NHL.com) he could see fear in the Sharks players’ eyes as early as Game 4 of that opening series:
Once we won that first game of the San Jose series, we kind of had a feeling we were going to come back and win that series. And you could see it in their eyes and their team and their captains and leaders that they were worried about us coming back.
You won’t see the same concern in the Kings against the Rangers. They’re too battle-tested to make the same mistakes. In these playoffs, they’ve overcome a pair of three-game losing streaks. They’ve been behind by at least two goals in five of their last 10 games but have won four of them.
That Kings’ recent history of pulling victory from the jaws of defeat versus the reputation the toothless Sharks have for choking when the pressure is on makes all the difference. Of course the Kings thought they were going to tie the game. Of course they thought they’d still pull off the sweep.
“Yeah, we did. We thought we were going to tie it back up. We had full confidence that we were going to do it. We had plenty of opportunities to do it—(Henrik Lundqvist) made some big saves, pucks were laying on the goal line,” Doughty said live on the NHL Network following Wednesday’s game. “We gave it a lot in the third period, but we slacked a little bit in the first, and that’s why we lost. “
While the Rangers used a stretch of bad luck as a bit of a crutch through the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, the Kings did no such thing when the puck twice sat uncovered on the Rangers' goal line waiting for a little shove to change the game.
Doughty was upset his team didn’t tap them in after the fact, not that they stalled there in the snow in the first place.
“It sucks,” he said. “We should have put those in the net. They were just laying right there for us. We’ve just got to get hungry around there. To get pucks by this goalie and this team, you just have to be hungrier than them and more determined.”
Bet on seeing just that Friday for Game 5 back at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Not only are they the better team, but their belief is also stronger.
The Rangers got a boost of confidence from that victory, but can they count on Lundqvist being unbeatable the rest of the way? Do they have the mental toughness to mount an epic comeback far more difficult than the 3-1 deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round?
“It’s not impossible. They’ve done it. We came back from 3-1 (against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2),” said Lundvist to NBC’s Pierre McGuire, as seen on the NHL Network. “But you need to be so smart playing against this team. They’re good. They almost trick you sometimes. You think you have everything under control, and then they make a couple of quick plays and they create something from basically nothing.”
Sounds like there are still some Rangers doubts.
Considering the quality of their competition and the giant hole they still face, there should be.
Steve Macfarlane has covered the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons with the Calgary Sun. Follow him on Twitter @macfarlaneHKY.