As expected, the Kings suffered through an inevitable hangover from their emotional seven-game series against Chicago in the Western Conference Finals. The Rangers jumped on them and had the Kings by their slippery skates and sloppy turnovers, enough to build a 2-0 lead, and then let them off the hook in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Fortunately for L.A., if there was one player who might have benefitted from being stuck in a seventh-game mindset, it was Justin Williams, the man who somehow goes from good to Gretzky in deciding games. On Wednesday, it was Williams who ultimately extracted the Kings from their malaise and scored at 4:36 of overtime for a 3-2 victory in the opening contest. “We just stayed with it,” Williams said after the game. “We obviously weren’t ourselves at the start."
From the other side, Rangers veteran Brad Richards knew a golden opportunity had slipped through his team’s hands like a wet bar of soap. “We had a chance to win,” he said. “We had a great opportunity. Now we made it hard on ourselves.”
Now the Rangers will have to be a lot better, because to a man, the Kings talked about how they were not happy with their effort, how they have to clean up the early turnovers and odd-man rushes that gave New York a chance to steal a road game. “I think [the Rangers] had a lot of energy and were fresh,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter. “If you look at their playoffs in the first periods, they’ve had really good first periods every game...I know that we were not on full tanks.”
The Rangers entered this series as the prohibitive underdog -- smaller, not nearly as deep, but with fast and fresher legs. They can match the Kings save-for-save by putting up one ace goalie in Henrik Lundqvist against another in Jonathan Quick, but they asked too much of their netminder, who faced 20 shots in the third period, compared to three for Quick, and 43 for the game. “It’s difficult for us,” Lundqvist said, “because we did a lot of good things.”
In the beginning, they certainly did. New York took advantage of the Kings’ sloppy play early on. Drew Doughty and Mike Richards, two normally sure-handed players, gave the puck away in the opening minutes. Defenseman Alex Martinez iced it unnecessarily midway through the period, leading to Rangers shots and a Kings penalty on the next shift. Defenseman Matt Greene had a safe clear up the right side of the ice during the subsequent penalty kill, but put the puck into his own bench, leaving the Kings with a face-off in their own zone.
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It was another Doughty giveaway that led to the opening goal of the game. As the defenseman was trying to keep the puck inside the Rangers' blueline, forward Benoit Pouliot poked it off his stick, sped off in the opposite direction and beat Quick on a breakaway. Two shifts later, Doughty and defensive partner Slava Voynov allowed New York's Carl Hagelin to race in all alone for a shorthanded goal that Voynov accidentally kicked in.
Until that point in the game, the Kings had to get themselves around the idea that they were no longer playing the Chicago Blackhawks. With six days between games, the Rangers had the psychological advantage of not having their minds cluttered by the aftermath of an emotional series that ended on Sunday night. The Kings have also logged a lot of mileage during these playoffs and beyond: they are just the first finalist in league history to play the maximum 21 games through the first three rounds of the playoffs, and they have played the most postseason contests of any NHL team, 59, since 2012.
L.A. finally responded, first getting a goal from Kyle Clifford at the side of the net with 2:27 left in the opening period. Then the Kings tied the score at 6:36 of the second on an artistic gem by Doughty, who showcased his best after displaying his worst in the game. He toe-dragged the puck between his skates to elude a poke check by Derek Dorsett before beating Lundqvist to knot things up at 2-2. In his elation, Doughty slammed both fists against the glass.
The final minutes of regulation time were unusually frenetic and not the type of play you would have seen from the Kings two years ago when their game was usually more structured. Chances for their opponents were simply not as plentiful with that team, but this squad is amenable to playing a more open game, which leads to some of the entertaining racehorse and skillful hockey we saw in the last round against Chicago.
After Rangers forward Brian Boyle took a slashing penalty with less than two minutes to play, the final seconds of regulation were a mad scramble with both teams trading scoring chances. Hagelin sped ahead for another shorthanded breakaway with Doughty in pursuit, but Quick got enough of the shot to thwart him. The Kings promptly turned the puck back up the ice, and Jeff Carter swung around the net, pulling Lundqvist out of the crease and then trying to tuck the puck into the open side. Hagelin used his speed to rush back into the play, but nearly knocked the puck into the net as Lundqvist sprawled back into his crease, getting just enough of the biscuit to keep it out.
On the winner, it was Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi who made the same type of giveaway that Doughty had committed earlier in the game, first losing the puck and then his edge. Girardi attempted to clear, and while his teammates rushed out of the defensive zone, Mike Richards picked off the puck and fed it to Williams in the slot for the dagger.
“It’s a bang-bang play,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “We were going North-South. We thought the puck was moving.”
Instead it moved to Williams. The striker, who has seven goals, seven assists and a perfect 7-0 record in Game 7s during his career, saved a starring role for Game 1 as his shot found a tiny opening on Lundqvist’s stick side. It was a familiar script for the resilient Kings who have escaped danger several times in these playoffs.
“Well it certainly helps that we’ve done it time and time again,” Williams said. “It’s a great result for us, but we have a lot of things to clean up -- certainly not our best game by any standards.”
That should worry the Rangers, who can expect the Kings to be tighter when they need to be, because they can. New York will have to keep attacking, because the Rangers’ speed is trouble for any defense, even when that defense isn’t attacking and leaving holes in its middle as the Kings did early in the game. “You don’t want to trade chances with the New York Rangers,” Sutter said after the game. “You trade chances, you’re going to have trouble.”
But the way the Kings responded to their bad start, and the lack of satisfaction in their comments, shows that we may see a lot more from them on Saturday.
“If we don’t make our chances pay,” said Brad Richards, “we can’t expect to get many more of them.”