The New York Rangers had not trailed for a single second of ice time during Game 1 or Game 2, yet the puck dropped for Game 3 with the Los Angeles Kings leading the Stanley Cup Final 2-0. Then it seemed as if the Kings had nailed a piece of plywood to the face of the goal as they roasted the Rangers 3-0.
After coming within a breath of two road wins, New York stares elimination in the face as it squares off against the Kings Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET in Madison Square Garden, and the team desperately needs a lesson in avoiding the ignominy of a sweep. With this survival guide, they can accomplish that first step by forgetting about the first three games, pressuring the net and eliminating mistakes.
Throughout NHL history, only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs managed to erase a 3-0 series deficit to win the Stanley Cup over the Detroit Red Wings.
Though the Kings are arguably the bigger, stronger and better hockey team, and they unquestionably boast more playoff experience after winning the Stanley Cup two years ago, the Rangers have too much talent to lose four in a row. They must gird themselves to at least provide home fans with one victory on the 20th anniversary of a glorious Cup run that snapped the franchise's 54-year title drought.
Wipe the Slate Clean
After consecutive overtime losses saw the Blueshirts squander two-goal leads multiple times, the series shifted to New York with the Rangers eager to take advantage of home ice and home cooking.
The Rangers limited L.A. to only 15 shots in Game 3, but three of those ended up in the net. The Kings broke a scoreless tie with only 0.8 seconds left in the first period, when Jeff Carter's shot glanced off sliding defenseman Dan Girardi's skate and over Henrik Lundqvist's catching glove. That brutal break seemed to signal that luck did not lie on the side of the home team.
Jake Muzzin made it 2-0 when his shot deflected off of Martin St. Louis. Mike Richards silenced the Garden when his goal made it 3-0 late in the second period. That also resulted from a lucky bounce when Ryan McDonagh blocked a pass attempt and it caromed perfectly back to Richards.
The Rangers feel snakebitten at the moment, but they will have to shake off that piteous mentality to have any shot at avoiding a sweep. As Lundqvist stated after the game, per NHL.com's Dan Rosen:
You try to stay positive right now, but it's tough. It's really tough. I think we're doing a lot of good things, but when you look at the goals, you know, we put two in our net and just a tough play on the third one. At some point you're going to have to need some puck luck and we don't have any right now. It feels like they have all of it.
While Lundqvist accurately states the Rangers will need some luck to scrape out a win, it's not a matter of L.A. having all of it and New York having none. Such bounces of the puck embody the vicissitudes of ice hockey. The Rangers must accept it, forget it and play desperate for a win like they did against the Pittsburgh Penguins when they fought out of a 3-1 series hole.
Crash the Net
Jonathan Quick played a spectacular Game 3 that quelled the raucous home crowd as he stunned the Rangers numerous times with preposterous stick saves on shots that would be goals 99 percent of the time.
Quick had never played an NHL game at Madison Square Garden, but he became the first visiting netminder to record a shutout in a final since 1972. The Rangers peppered him with 32 shots, and he stonewalled every single one.
The Rangers nearly scored first, and it was hard to believe that they didn't when watching the play live. Mats Zuccarello stood on the doorstep with the left side of the net wide open, but his stick and Quick's converged near the right post, and the puck improbably bounced back out.
Derick Brassard looked perplexed after Quick denied his shot off a rebound in the second period. A minute late, Quick robbed Brassard on an even better opportunity, knocking the puck from its goalward trajectory with the handle of his stick.
Chris Kreider watched Quick smother a breakaway early in the third period, all but confirming the Rangers' fate.
As Kings defenseman Drew Doughty described Quick's night to Rosen:
He played fantastic for us. He made some big saves, saves he had no business making. His rebound control was good, his puckhandling was good, everything about his game was great and he was a big reason why we won.
After struggling early in the playoffs and watching the Kings fall behind 3-0 in the series against the St. Louis Blues, Quick has reinvigorated his play and left opponents muttering under their breath after each successively more brilliant save.
The Rangers would be in good shape if they could generate the same amount of shots and scoring chances as they did in Game 3. Quick cannot possibly be that good or that lucky again.
However, with only elimination games left in their season, the Rangers have to be willing to get sloppy. Instead of their ornate passing and elegant setups, they must get scrappy. Screen the goalie, shoot the puck and crash the net.
While their breakaway speed represents perhaps their only clear advantage over L.A., they also have to play more like the Kings and create the opportunities to get lucky.
While the Rangers have not had many breaks in the series to this point, they have also made their fair share of mistakes. In Game 1, two of the Kings' three goals, including the overtime game-winner, resulted from turnovers by defensemen in their own end. First, Derek Stepan was the culprit, and Dan Girardi's costly flub handed L.A. the win in OT.
In Game 2, the Rangers carped about Dwight King's goal that trimmed the Rangers' lead to 4-3 early in the third period. Though he was standing in the middle of the goal crease, no penalty was called for interference.
Referees probably didn't even notice anything out of the ordinary, as the Kings have regularly planted a man in front of the goal to screen Lundqvist. With their roster staffed by big bodies, the Kings have had little difficulty outmuscling the Rangers.
It's been a series of very unfortunate events in the Rangers defensive zone that have resulted in 11 Los Angeles goals over three games despite effective play from Lundqvist.
The biggest issue for New York has not been Rick Nash's disappearance on offense or its lack of puck luck. Simply, the defense has been lacking, and the roster appears progressively worn down in the latter stages of each game by the more physically imposing Kings.
The Rangers entered the Stanley Cup Final feeling like a team of destiny, but the resilient Kings have rolled up the Blueshirts and smoked them like a victory cigar thus far.
Step one in the comeback consists of avoiding a sweep, but following the old one-game-at-a-time cliche, the Rangers must forget about the last three heart-wrenching losses to focus on creating copious offensive chances and playing without mistakes in their own end.