The Los Angeles Kings nearly ran the New York Rangers out of Madison Square Garden in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. However, puck luck spared the Blueshirts, and the third in a slew of early 2-0 deficits in the series finally caught up to L.A. on Wednesday.
In the playoffs—let alone the SCF—the margin for error is obviously slight. The Kings cannot continue to spot the opposition leads and hope to claw back.
By Game 4, they'd been to that well one too many times. Good fortune rested with New York for once, as Alain Vigneault’s squad caught a fortuitous bounce on its game-winner while nervously watching L.A. scramble to within an inch of tying the contest on two separate occasions:
Had the Kings been raring to go from the opening whistle, this series would likely have concluded with a sweep.
As the even-strength Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) chart below demonstrates, L.A. was all over New York in the second half of the game, pummeling the Rangers with wave upon wave of offense:
Alas, Henrik Lundqvist—well, more so the ice shavings in front of his goal line—could not be breached, and the Kings’ late-game dominance amounted to nothing but a notch in the loss column. Their stunning five-on-five Corsi percentage of 61.5 and 41-19 edge in shots were of no consequence.
Too little, too late.
Looking at the bigger picture, head coach Darryl Sutter’s team has suffered through dismal starts over the entire spring.
The Kings’ goal differential per frame sheds light on how the team has reached this point: minus-one in the first, plus-three in the second and a whopping plus-13 in the third.
Boasting the resilience to fight back in clutch situations is a wonderful asset and produces a cute narrative the press can pounce on, but winning a Stanley Cup in this fashion is an incredibly arduous task.
Besides, for all the plaudits L.A. has garnered for its never-say-die attitude, the team is only 6-8 in these playoffs when it trails first in a game.
Conversely, its 9-2 record when it leads first shows just how much better this squad is when it gets on the scoreboard before its opponent. If any further incentive were required for a strong start, New York is only 2-6 when it concedes first.
For whatever reason, though, the Kings are consistently sloppy right from the opening faceoff.
Game 4 was no different in this regard. Drew Doughty turned the puck over in the middle of the ice mere seconds into the tilt. Willie Mitchell took a pair of penalties prior to the 23-minute mark.
Jake Muzzin, who sports a four-inch and 28-pound advantage over Carl Hagelin, is shrugged off the puck by the speedy winger in the first period, granting Derek Stepan a bid he should have never seen:
On Benoit Pouliot’s goal, the defense is out of sorts. Anze Kopitar—who has been something of a ghost in the past 10 games—must find a way to either disrupt the Rangers along the wall or clog John Moore's shooting lane. Instead, the point man is afforded the room to rip a shot on net and put pressure on L.A.
A few passes later, Kopitar again can’t block Moore’s shooting lane and Pouliot tips the puck by Jonathan Quick:
In a nutshell, that’s not good enough.
The Kings’ early lackluster play put New York in the driver’s seat and opened the door for chance to determine the outcome of the game.
Naturally, then, the Rangers won on the strength of a fluky three-on-three rush.
Stepan takes a drop pass from Martin St. Louis and opts for a fairly harmless shot. In an attempt to clear the puck, Alec Martinez swipes at it only to redirect its path toward a waiting St. Louis on the far post:
Because L.A. wasted an entire period to begin the game, that goal was the difference between a Stanley Cup and Game 5 against a Rangers team whose belief may have been restored.
Expecting the Kings to flash their come-from-behind gear for a full 60 minutes is unreasonable, but the discrepancy between their first- and third-period performances is equally unacceptable.
That gap needs to bridged as soon as Friday—L.A. of all franchises should know that the postseason is about getting hot at the right time. Any sliver of Rangers momentum must be nipped in the bud before this series features a whole new complexion.
If the Kings don’t come alive early in Game 5 and put their foot on New York’s throat, they’ll be putting their shot at a second championship in three seasons in real jeopardy.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.