LOS ANGELES — The Stanley Cup champion was crowned a week ago at the United Center, if you’re to believe everything you’ve read and everything you saw on TV. When Alec Martinez’s shot fluttered through Nick Leddy’s sweater and past Corey Crawford, the NHL season apparently ended.
The Western Conference was so much better than the East, the Kings and Blackhawks so much better than the upstart New York Rangers, that the Stanley Cup Final itself was a foregone conclusion, a mere formality. After all, the West dominated the East over the first half of the season and was a gaudy 246-150-52 overall, the most lopsided record in 13 years. And the Rangers were just the fifth-best team in the East to begin with. Only the Boston Bruins had a real chance of beating the five or six elite teams in the West in a seven-game series, and they lost in the second round. So why bother?
Yet here they were on Saturday night, the Kings and the Rangers, going through with the Stanley Cup Final, anyway.
And it’s been a doozy, after all.
Dustin Brown redirected Willie Mitchell’s shot through Henrik Lundqvist’s legs at 10:26 of the second overtime to give the Kings a 5-4 victory in a riveting Game 2. The win gives the Kings a 2-0 series lead as the scene shifts across the country to New York for Monday’s Game 3, but the Rangers have made it clear that this won’t be the cakewalk so many expected it to be. After taking the Kings to overtime in both games, it’s clear the Eastern Conference champions are very much for real.
Not that the Rangers are playing for moral victories.
“I don’t give a [bleep] about underdogs,” Rangers center Brian Boyle said. “That’s ridiculous. Give me a break. We’re not. We’re here, too. We’re a good team. And we can’t take any solace [in two close games] because we lost. We came here to win games. It doesn’t matter how the hell we do it, we have to win the game. If you don’t win the game you didn’t do what you came to do and that’s the worst feeling there is.”
But it’s also becoming clear that the Kings simply can’t be killed. Their degree of difficulty keeps rising, but the numbers of wins they need to win a second Stanley Cup in three years keeps dropping.
It was the third straight game the Kings fell behind 2-0. And just like in Game 7 against the Blackhawks, and Game 1 against the Rangers, they came all the way back to win in overtime. This was the unlikeliest one yet, as the New York put L.A. in a two-goal hole three different times in a sloppy, up-and-down game that wasn’t technically proficient, but was tremendously entertaining.
“I don’t know what it is about us,” Kings center Anze Kopitar said. “It just shows the character of this team, the resiliency. We never quit, and got it done eventually.”
Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello scored in the first period to give the Rangers the early lead. Jarret Stoll cut the lead to 2-1 early in the second, but Martin St. Louis made it 3-1 on a power play. Willie Mitchell scored on a power pay three minutes later, but the Rangers — showing some of the resiliency that has become the Kings’ hallmark — answered just 11 seconds later with a Derick Brassard goal.
But the Kings never seem to go away. Less than two minutes into the third, Dwight King deflected a Matt Greene shot past Lundqvist to cut the Rangers’ lead to 4-3. Lundqvist was furious and felt King had interfered with him in the crease, slamming his stick on the ice, but the goal stood. The non-call loomed large as Marian Gaborik finally evened things up at 4-4 at 7:38 of the third.
The first overtime was a breathless barrage of scoring chances both ways, but neither team could break through. King shot wide on an open look from the slot, and Chris Kreider couldn’t beat Quick on a power-play breakaway. Like the rest of the game — and the series as a whole so far, hardly the Kings coronation so many expected it to be — it was messy, but it was incredible theater.
“I don’t know about one for the ages,” said Justin Williams, the Game 1 hero who had three assists in Game 2. “Whatever. It’s a win.”