NEW YORK – Those who ascribe an inordinate amount of luck to outcomes in professional sports are the same people who explain that one team won over the other because that team wanted it more.
It’s a bunch of rubbish, really. The best players in the world are performing in the Stanley Cup final and it’s going to come down to lucky bounces? Not a chance. Yes, teams have a certain amount of good fortune during games, but those fortunate/unfortunate developments almost always even out.
The New York Rangers did not win Game 4 and extend the Stanley Cup final by at least one more game because they were lucky. They won the game because their goaltender played the way he is capable of playing and, as he often does, brought his best level of performance to an elimination game. Henrik Lundqvist carried his teammates on his broad shoulders and turned in an all-world performance.
There’s nothing lucky about that.
“It was pretty self-explanatory out there,” explained Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. “He was The King for us.”
Lundqvist had not necessarily played poorly in Games 1 through 3, but he was not a difference maker the way Jonathan Quick had been. Neither goaltender had been particularly good in Games 1 and 2, but the moment Quick flipped the switch in those games, he shut the door, bolted it and sealed it with impenetrable caulking. Lundqvist, on the other hand, allowed a questionable goal to shake him in Game 2 and could not lock down three two-goal leads in the first two games.
It’s becoming clear that as this series progresses and the gap in talent between the two teams gets even wider, that the Rangers are going to need the kind of performance Lundqvist gave them in Game 4 in Games 5, 6* and 7* (* if necessary). Even Lundqvist himself, while acknowledging he felt good in the first three games of the series, conceded that a superior effort from him was required.
“Being OK or good is not going to win you games right now,” Lundqvist said. “You have to be better than that.”
It’s very evident that the Kings continue to take it to the Rangers. The strangest thing about Game 4 was that it was probably the best game the Kings played start to finish in the series, and is the only one they lost. Signs of dominance are beginning to emerge here. The Kings demolished the Rangers in the first period, winning 16 of the 20 faceoffs. They outshot the Rangers by more than a 2:1 margin, including the third period when the Kings held a 15-1 advantage in shots.
Yes, Lundqvist had some help from his teammates, in particular Anton Stralman and Derek Stepan, who saved goals from trickling into the Ranger net. (“The puck was dancing on the goal line there,” was how Stralman put it.) But that’s not luck. It has nothing to do with luck. It has everything to do with good defensive positioning and a willingness to battle in front of the net against the biggest and most physical team in the NHL.
Give the Rangers credit. When they showed up for an optional practice Tuesday, they looked like a defeated bunch. It looked as though the Kings had broken them and were poised to finish the job in Game 4. They might have simply put off the end of the series to Friday night, but they were valiant in their effort and in their determination not to see the Kings skate around the ice with the Stanley Cup in their house.
“We definitely didn’t want to see the Cup coming out on home ice tonight,” Lundqvist said. “Just the thought of it makes me feel sick.”
Well, Lundqvist and his teammates are going to have to get the same feeling of nausea Friday night at the Staples Center, a place where the Kings can be dominant. Lundqvist’s efforts made the Rangers 5-0 in elimination games in this year’s playoffs and improved their record to 11-2 in their past 13 elimination games. The Rangers have not succumbed in a single elimination game at home in their past eight, which is something to take into account if they manage to steal Game 5 in Los Angeles. Lundqvist has a .959 save percentage in those 13 elimination games, which is probably what he’s going to need in Game 5.
“You have to keep telling yourself you’re doing the right things,” Lundqvist said, “and that’s what I did tonight.”
THN’S THREE STARS
1. Henrik Lundqvist: He was the sole reason why we all have to pack up and head to Los Angeles for a game Friday night.
2. Martin St-Louis: The man with the heart of a lion delivered the 11th playoff game-winning goal of his career and the third of these playoffs.
3. Tanner Pearson: He didn’t figure into the scoring, but he was a beast in Game 4, registering eight shots and being a force all over the ice.