By Brian Cazeneuve
The Kings left their drama in Tinseltown on Monday night. After a pair of frantic rallies and overtime victories at home, Los Angeles played a superb road game and got its best effort of the series from Jonathan Quick. The ace goalie made 32 saves to give his team a commanding 3-0 victory and 3-0 series lead against the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final they now have a chance to wrap up on Wednesday night.
Hey, sometimes, boring is better.
“Less exciting, I guess,” said Kings’ defenseman Drew Doughty. “Just the way we wanted it.”
Jeff Carter, Jake Muzzin and Mike Richards scored for the Kings, who killed off six Rangers power plays and blocked 20 shots, packing in their defense and playing a much a more conservative game than they did in Los Angeles, where they twice rallied from 2-0 deficits to eke out victories in overtime.
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Outshot 87-65 in the two matches in Los Angeles, the Rangers held L.A. to just 15, a total that belies just how well the Kings played for most of the night.
“It was definitely our best game,” said their captain, Dustin Brown. “We were much cleaner tonight–not perfect, but cleaner.”
The Kings showed how they could play a more wide open game at home, with defensemen joining rushes and creating chances, but at Madison Square Garden, they proved that they could still be the same team that used to shut opponents down and give up only cosmetic shots from the outside for long stretches.
In the first period, with the home crowd exhorting the Rangers to attack, Brown recorded the first shot of the night, 3:36 into the game. The shots in the first period--five for the Kings and four for the Rangers--indicated just how smartly L.A. slowed the game to a crawl designed to keep the Rangers from feeding off their crowd.
“We wanted to take the buzz out of the building as much as possible,” said Kings forward Trevor Lewis. “We didn’t want the Rangers to be able to build off anything.”
The result was a much tighter game and fewer mistakes by the Kings' defense. It also produced a novelty for L.A.: a lead. Until Carter’s goal with seven-tenths of a second left in the opening period, the Kings had never led in regulation during the series, going 249 minutes and 16 seconds without playing in front. Carter's last-second goal also deflated the Rangers, who appeared to be headed to the dressing room after a scoreless first period.
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Seconds after the Kings’ killed off the only penalty in the first, Carter broke into the Rangers' zone and beat Henrik Lundqvist with a fluttering shot. Lundqvist was leaning to his right as Carter took the shot, perhaps favoring the blocker side that the Kings had managed to exploit during the two games in Los Angeles. That opened up a bit more of the glove side for Carter to hit. Officials looked at a replay and confirmed the good goal that went in a bare tick before the buzzer, confirming that Carter has one of the quickest releases in the league.
“That’s a tough one,” said Rangers forward Rick Nash. “It’s a huge momentum swing for them, but we had two periods left so we can’t make that our excuse.”
But ultimately, the shutout would not have happened if not for Quick. In the opening period, a Rangers shot from the point, which Quick did not initially see, got knocked down in the crease. Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello appeared to have an open net in front of him, but Quick reached back and was able to block the shot with his stick.
Again, in the second period, Quick made a split save that surely seemed headed for the net, stopping Derick Brassard at the doorstep with a sliding skate save that caught several Rangers with their sticks half-raised in celebration. Ironically, it was Quick’s first game in Madison Square Garden as a pro, though he grew up a Rangers fan and once played in a pee-wee shootout there.
“When Quickie’s playing like that and we get a lead,” said Doughty, “it’s game over as long as we take care of our end.”
That was the Kings’ mantra in Game 3: take care of their end and don’t give up easy chances. You get a sense that they feel they have a better team than the Rangers and don’t want to trade chances against a club that can’t match its four-line depth. The Kings’ gave up a pair of short-handed breakaways at the Staples Center when their defense was being aggressive and careless, and New York's Carl Hagelin picked up two breakaways in the first on Monday night. When Hagelin was on the ice during the Kings’ power play in the second period, Doughty was quick to drop back out of the offensive zone as soon the Kings turned the puck over, even when the turnover took place near the Rangers’ goal line.
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The Kings jumped to a 2-0 lead on a power play goal by Jake Muzzin four minutes into the second period. In the third, they got a good bounce on an insurance goal, off a two-on-one break that went wrong and then right. As Mike Richards tried to find Lewis with a pass, the puck hit Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the left skate and bounced right back to Richards. Lundqvist slid over to his left, anticipating a pass and took himself out of the play. Richards simply put the rebound into an open net on the goalie’s stick side.
“At some point, you are going to need some puck luck and we don’t have any right now,” said Lundqvist. “It feels like they have all of it.”
Still, good teams create good bounces, and at this point, the Kings have been opportunistic when possible and smart when necessary. The Rangers pulled Lundqvist with 4:20 to go, threw all forces at the Kings’ net and didn’t manage a shot on Quick in the final 2:20. That’s just commanding defense. The Kings managed just two shots in the third period, and didn’t need to take more.
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Now the Kings have to avoid the malaise of a team that's in a position for a sweep. They were here before, up 3-0 in the 2012 Cup final against New Jersey, but the Devils won twice, forcing the series to six games.
“We got ahead of ourselves that year,” said Doughty. “We had a lot of things going on outside of hockey. We can learn from that.”
It’s especially true for a team that came from 3-0 down in its opening series against San Jose and a 3-2 deficit against Anaheim. Sweeps have been hard to come by in recent years. After a series of four straight between 1995 and 1998, every subsequent Cup final has gone at least five games and all but two have lasted at least six.
“I’m not sure we’ll look at it that way" said Mike Richards. “We can’t think about sweeps; we still have a big challenge ahead of us.”
So far, the Kings have found different ways to overcome all of them.
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The Kings and Rangers will meet in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night in New York at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN, CBC, RDS).