There is a tendency in sports to conflate outcomes with merit, to assume that the team which wins the game wanted the victory more or worked for it harder or in some other way attained it through sheer force of will.
That’s how Disney movies work. That isn’t how things transpire in the real world.
For evidence, one needs look no further than Game 4 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, where the Los Angeles Kings dominated play but left the ice on the wrong side of a 2-1 final score.
“That’s the best that they’ve played in this series. They came at us really hard,” New York head coach Alain Vigneault said in his postgame press conference (carried live on the NHL Network). “Sometimes the hockey gods are there, and they were there tonight.”
Vigneault’s team, which played extremely well in gaining the 1-0 lead and then at times in establishing a 2-0 lead, completely collapsed afterward. The Kings had their way with New York from the second goal on, gaining the offensive zone with impunity and putting puck after puck after puck on Henrik Lundqvist.
The shot clock tells the story concisely. When Martin St. Louis scored to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead, the shot clock was 14-13 in favour of Los Angeles. The rest of the way, the Kings outshot the Rangers 27-6.
It was with good reason that the crowd at Madison Square Garden chanted “Henrik, Henrik” at a stoppage in play during the game’s final minutes. If not for the phenomenal play of the Rangers’ goaltender, it is likely that the Kings would be celebrating the second Stanley Cup win in franchise history while I wrote a very different postgame piece.
But it was not just Lundqvist’s exceptional play that dictated the outcome of the game.
Twice in the game the puck slid tantalizingly toward the New York goal line, only to stop and sit in place before crossing it. The first time, Rangers defenceman Anton Stralman got a stick on the puck and prevented a goal; the second time it was centre Derek Stepan who made the essential play, using his glove to bat the puck out of danger (and, to his credit, having the presence of mind not to close his hand on the puck, which would have resulted in a penalty shot).
Or, as Vigneault put it afterward: “Thank god for soft ice now and then.”
And that’s not even mentioning the crossbar which Marian Gaborik nailed with a shot earlier in the game.
The simple fact of the matter is that Los Angeles delivered a performance worthy of winning it all in New York. The Kings were the better team over the course of the game, and the much better team in the third period.
There was an element of chance at work in the Rangers' Game 4 victory, as there was in the Kings’ 3-0 lead in the series, as there always is in hockey. All a team can do is put itself in a position to win; it can force shot after shot on net, and most of the time that will be enough.
The Kings did exactly that in Game 1 of this series, outshooting the Rangers by a phenomenal 20-3 margin in the third period; eventually those efforts culminated in a Justin Williams overtime marker. They did it again in Game 2, outshooting the Rangers by a 24-16 margin over the third period and two overtimes before Dustin Brown scored to end it.
Los Angeles did it again in Game 4, dominating for the vast majority of the game, but this time it wasn’t enough.
Vigneault joked after the game about the hockey gods and soft ice and luck changing, but the Rangers aren’t going to win many games where they allow the other team to dominate to such a degree. He surely knows that, and if he forgets, he can just look back to blown leads in the opening games of the series. His job, and that of his team, is to find a way to keep L.A. from controlling the play.
The Kings have the opposite challenge: to keep doing what they did in Game 4.
If they do, this series isn’t likely to last much longer.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com.