NEW YORK — Eighteen minutes and 49 seconds into one of the most frantic and pressure-packed third periods of his illustrious career, Henrik Lundqvist’s crease was a mess. All those super-quick lateral strides, those desperate flails, those kicks and whacks and flops and pile-ups, had left the blue paint speckled with white — a Jackson Pollock splatter painting of clumpy snow on smooth ice.
So when Alec Martinez’s shot was deflected by Tanner Pearson and through Lundqvist’s legs, the puck gathered snow as it gathered steam. As it slid just under Lundqvist’s right ankle, it started to slow down, the crescent-moon of snow behind the puck waxing inch by agonizing inch, before the puck finally stopped — improbably, amazingly, fatefully — as the snow, but not the puck, just grazed the goal line, where Derek Stepan used the fingertips of his glove to shovel it safely underneath Lundqvist.
Yes, the New York Rangers finally found that puck luck they’ve been lamenting throughout the Stanley Cup Final.
As a result, they also finally found some life, leaning heavily on Lundqvist and Lady Luck in a tense 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 4. The victory cut the Kings’ lead in the series to 3-1, at least delaying their second coronation in three seasons. The Stanley Cup was in New York and boxes of champagne with the Kings logo were loaded in the bowels of the Garden, but it’ll all be shipped across the country — along with both teams — for Friday’s Game 5.
“Obviously, I just don’t want it to go in the net,” Stepan said. “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.”
That extraordinary sequence — one that surely will be replayed for years to come — wasn’t the only hold-your-breath moment of the game for the Rangers, who were outshot 41-19 in the game, and 15-1 in the third period. Late in the first period, the puck sat on the goal line behind Lundqvist as Jeff Carter — who’ll be replaying this game in his nightmares forever if the Rangers somehow come all the way back to win the Cup — took two whacks at it before Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman swept it out of the crease. In the second period, Marian Gaborik ripped a shot off the crossbar on a two-on-one. Carter had a golden chance in the second period, but was denied by Lundqvist. And later in the second, Carter burned Dan Girardi for a breakaway, only to see Lundqvist make a sprawling skate save.
“I think we deserved that after our bounces in the first three games,” Rangers forward Rick Nash said.
And the Rangers, like the Kings did in the first three games, were good enough to take advantage of those breaks, finally holding on to an early 2-0 lead after seeing the Kings erase them in Games 1 and 2 (and Game 7 against the Blackhawks).
Benoit Pouliot deflected a John Moore shot past Jonathan Quick early in the first to snap a goal drought of 123 minutes — more than two full games, thanks to a double-overtime loss in Game 2. Martin St. Louis made it 2-0 when Stepan’s pass to a charging Chris Kreider slipped underneath Quick and right to St. Louis for an easy chip-in.
Dustin Brown woke the Kings up with a breakaway goal midway through the second when Girardi’s stick broke — there’s that luck factor again — but that was as close as the Kings got, despite spending the next 30 minutes peppering Lundqvist from all angles. Lundqvist dove and swatted, snatched and smothered, bailing out his on-their-heels teammates time and time again — and building up just enough snow in his crease to bail himself out at the end.
“He had to make some huge saves in the second and the third,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “And we got a few bounces. You need those. Maybe the luck is changing a little bit.”
The question now is if the momentum might change, too. Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty spoke before the game about the Kings’ own comeback from a 3-0 series deficit, in the first round against San Jose. He knows how quickly momentum can shift in a seven-game series, how soon the impossible becomes the improbable, which then becomes the inevitable. After all, the Kings won one of these dignity-saving Game 4s at home — and that’s when Doughty saw it, from Sharks captain Joe Thornton all the way down the bench.
“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,” Doughty said. “You could see it in their eyes, and their team, and their captains and leaders, that they were worried about us coming back.”
The Kings still have a huge lead, still have the edge, still have championship experience and a home game awaiting them in Game 5. But now they need to look themselves in the mirror, and make sure they don’t have that same look in their eyes. Because the Rangers, well, they aren’t dead yet.