You have to feel for the New York Rangers. The 2014 Stanley Cup Final could just as easily be 2-1 in their favor or, at worst, a 2-1 deficit to the Los Angeles Kings if not for some unfortunate bounces in the first three games.
But there's a reason the Kings entered the championship series as heavy favorites, and the Rangers are facing as uphill a battle as there could be, down 3-0 going into Wednesday's 8 p.m. ET game in New York.
It's the Mount Everest of tasks—before that heralded mountain challenge became so commercialized that individuals can simply hire a skilled Sherpa to drag their butts up the dangerous terrain.
No, this isn't a Martin St. Louis-is-as-short-as-a-Sherpa setup. But the Rangers could use some serious help right now.
Here are three storylines for each team and a prediction for the series' first elimination contest.
Kings' Top Storylines
Can they discover the killer instinct?
Until Game 3, the Kings were content—or at least greatly capable of—doing things the hard way. They got their first lead in the Stanley Cup Final in the dying seconds of the first period, something they hadn't done since Game 6 of the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Now they are the hunters instead of the hunted, which hasn't been super successful territory this spring for a Kings team that seems to be fine with three-game losing streaks in a best-of-seven series.
They started the playoffs with a 3-0 deficit against the San Jose Sharks and had to win every one of their next four games to move on. They won the first two against the Ducks, then dropped three straight before winning the last two of the second-round series. In the Conference Final, the Kings let a 3-1 lead slip away before winning Game 7 for a third straight series.
They'd certainly prefer to end this now and enjoy the rest of their spring and summer as champs. Defenseman Drew Doughty told ESPN's Pierre LeBrun on Tuesday that the Kings know from personal experience they need to close it out:
It wasn't easy for us to come back from 3-0 in the first series against San Jose. We know how it can happen. All it takes is one game, one momentum shift; the team can run with it, the other team can be down in the dumps. That's why this next game is so important for us. We can't let them back into the series. We have to take it to them. They're going to have their best effort without a doubt, and we need to have ours as well.
The Conn is on
Maybe the biggest battle for the Kings at this point, aside from the boring drivel you'll hear about things going one game at a time and the next win is that hardest from now until the series is actually over, is the one between the players most deserving of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP once it ends.
The easy choice is giving it to the points leader, which through three games of the Final is Anze Kopitar with five goals and 26 points in 24 games. He's also a plus-nine and is finally getting attention as one of the league's true two-way superstars. A round ago, he might have been a lock. But the internal competition is heating up.
Doughty is another logical candidate. From the back end, he's contributed five goals and 17 points. He's averaging more than 28 minutes a night and is clearly the team's emotional leader.
Justin Williams was a dark-horse candidate who's forced himself into more serious contention with nine points in his last five games. His plus-14 rating is a playoff best. Marian Gaborik still leads all postseason players with 13 goals, and you can't discount Jeff Carter, either. Carter is the only other player with double-digit goals (10) and is playing at a point-per-game pace.
Whoever steps up in the last game or two could walk away with the extra hardware. Good luck trying to decide on this one, voters.
Quick saving his best for last
Through the first three rounds, goaltender Jonathan Quick's numbers looked anything but great. He let in 59 goals and had a save percentage of .906—well below his .923 career playoff average.
In the Stanley Cup Final, however, he's boasting championship-type numbers with a 1.68 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. In a series that was supposed to feature a battle between two wildly different but elite netminders, Quick is running away with the contest.
The Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist has given up 11 goals for a 3.14 GAA and has a miserable .892 save percentage.
Maybe not a beach ball, but Quick has Rangers coach Alain Vigneault concerned with elimination on the line on Wednesday night:
Rangers' Top Storylines
Can they keep their scope small?
The Rangers players have their cliche handbook in their lockers and brushed up on the lingo Tuesday as they talked about the 3-0 series deficit and approaching it one game at a time.
"We've seen it been done...but (all you need to do) is get one game. Then you'll start feeling better about yourself," defenseman Marc Staal told USA Today's Nicole Auerbach. "Then you can get another one, and it goes from there. It kind of snowballs. We wake up tomorrow and try to win one game."
Vigneault knows how tough it really is to avoid looking at the bleak big picture and focus on one game, or even better, just one shift, from now until the series ends. It's the only way for his Rangers to pull through what looks like a near-impossible situation. He spoke about the talk Tuesday and wants to see action Wednesday, via Tal Pinchevsky of NHL.com:
Whatever talk you may use, at the end of the day it's about one game. That's as simple and logical and realistic as I can put it. We need to focus on one game and that's what we're going to do. Everybody is going to come out (Tuesday) and say all the right things. All that is just talk. What needs to happen is the actions on the ice. So far I like the way we've played. We've played some good hockey but we haven't found a way to win. That's what we've got to do.
Time for their stars to shine
Someone should put an All Points Bulletin out for St. Louis. He has one goal and no assists through the first three games, and that came on the power play. His line has tallied exactly zero points at even strength so far, and the Rangers are no longer doing what got them to this point of the playoffs.
They got past the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens to win the Eastern Conference by getting contributions, if not point production, from all four lines. As of now, the goals at even strength have come from one line. And it's not the one featuring St. Louis and Brad Richards, or the one with Rick Nash on it.
These are the players who make the big bucks and need to step up to save the Rangers from going home disappointed after Game 4.
Nash has been disappointing as a Ranger in the playoffs:
He didn't play poorly in Game 3, using his size in the corners and at least acting the part of a power forward. His team needs goals, though, and he admitted to Katie Strang of ESPN New York that he's not happy just playing well: "I can't be satisfied when we're losing. Right now, chances aren't good enough. They've got to be going in, we've got to be helping the team win."
Henrik has to be King
We touched on Lundqvist's shoddy numbers in the Kings storylines while talking about how great Quick has been. They're bad, and the Rangers can't win without those making a massive climb of improvement.
But Lundqvist hasn't played entirely poorly. He's had a bit of bad luck through three games, with goals bouncing in off his own players' skates or mitts. Still, the star netminder has to rebound with his best game of the Cup Final—maybe even the playoffs—to delay what appears to be the inevitable crowning of the Kings for a second NHL title in three years.
"I feel like I've been playing my game and I've been feeling pretty good. But in the end, giving up three or more goals, it's going to be tough to win," Lundqvist told reporters. "It hasn't been enough. I'm going to try and raise my level."
Rangers 3, Kings 2
A combination of desperation from the Rangers—who will get strong performances from Lundqvist and St. Louis—and the luxury of time for the Kings means a stay of execution for the New Yorkers. But they're only delaying the inevitable.
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