The New York Rangers needed a little luck, such as on the above play, and a whole lot of Henrik Lundqvist to stave off elimination and win Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals Wednesday, but they'll need to take some pressure off their goalie and get contributions from others in order to complete this improbable rally.
Even if you’re the kind of hockey newbie who thinks icing is the stuff you put on top of a cake, you probably know enough about the sport to know great goaltending is often the difference between winning and losing a playoff series.
Case in point, Los Angeles’ goalie Jonathan Quick stopped all 32 shots he faced earlier this week in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals and the Kings cruised to a 3-0 win despite the fact New York nearly tripled their shot output. Two nights ago, it was the exact opposite, this time with Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist turning away 40 of the 41 shots he faced to lead New York to a 2-1 win in a game so lopsided the Kings actually outshot the Rangers 15-1 in the final period.
Wednesday’s win kept the Rangers alive for at least one more game. They trail the series three games to one with Game 5 set for tonight in Los Angeles. New York is trying to become just the fifth team in NHL history and just the sixth in the history of professional sports to rally from a 3-0 series deficit in the postseason. Of the four teams to accomplish the feat in hockey, only one – the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs – did it in the Stanley Cup Finals.
After losing Game 3 Wednesday on home ice, the Rangers became the 321st team in sports history to fall behind 3-0 in a playoff series, which means the five teams that rallied to win represent a measly 1.6 percent of the population, long odds for New York in what figures to be a near-insurmountable task.
Stranger things have happened, as Lundqvist eloquently pointed out following New York’s Game 4 win, and it’s not as if rallying from a 3-0 deficit is some archaic achievement from hockey’s Original Six era, a chance occurrence rendered unattainable by expansion and rule changes. One of the previous four teams to do it happens to be this year’s Kings, the same team the Rangers are trying to dethrone in their own attempt to rewrite history. Los Angeles won four consecutive games in its opening-round series against the Sharks after dropping the first three, so it’s not impossible in the modern era, just improbable.
What might be impossible is doing it by walking the same tightrope the Rangers walked so valiantly in Game 4. The Kings outshot New York 41-19 and dominated the final two periods, but the impenetrable Lundqvist made save after save, even benefitting from a friendly snow drift in front of the goal line that kept Tanner Pearson’s deflection from tying the game in the closing minutes.
After losing the first two games of the series in overtime – the second one on a deflection by Dustin Brown – the Rangers finally got a few breaks in Game 4, but they’ll need more than luck to pull off the improbable in Games 5, 6 and 7 (if it gets that far). They can’t rely solely on Lundqvist. Not even the Kings had to sweat through each of the final four games in their comeback against the Sharks. They won by a combined score of 18-5, including a 5-1 blowout in San Jose in Game 7. When the 1975 New York Islanders rallied from three down to beat the Penguins in the Campbell Conference quarterfinals, they won Games 4, 5 and 6 by a combined score of 11-4 before finishing the job with a 1-0 win in Game 7.
The Rangers need a laugher or two in order to break the ice – no pun intended – and put some real pressure on the Kings, and the only way to do that is to utilize their speed, which might be their lone advantage aside from Lundqvist, generate offense and play to win when it counts instead of playing to not lose.
Just because it worked in Game 4 – and let’s not forget the Rangers needed to swipe two pucks off the red line, not just one, to preserve their 1-0 edge – doesn’t mean a defensive approach will be enough to win the next three games, including the two scheduled in Los Angeles.
As great as he is, asking Lundqvist to save 40 shots a night for the remainder of the series is unrealistic. He’s already done it twice this series, including Game 1, and three times in this postseason, which is eye-popping considering he only had five games with 40 or more saves in each of the last two years combined before this season. The fact is Lundqvist is facing more shots than ever – even more on average during this year’s playoff run than he’s faced in previous seasons – and that’s bad news if the Rangers are going to make a serious run at a comeback.
Lundqvist has never stopped 40 or more shots in back-to-back games in his career, let alone four in a row, and he hasn’t saved 30 or more in four consecutive games since December of 2009. Part of that is because he hasn’t had to thanks to the Rangers’ limiting their opponents’ shots on goal, and part of that is because it’s nearly impossible for any goalie to be that good every night. As Lundqvist pointed out following Game 4, the season could be over if the Rangers make just one more mistake the rest of the way.
What they’re trying to do isn’t impossible, but it will be if they continue to toe the line ever so carefully the way they did Wednesday night.
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