LOS ANGELES — The fear is real now. It has to be.
For much of the night it appeared that the rumours about the imminent demise of the New York Rangers were unfounded. Then the Los Angeles Kings jolted back to life and signaled their intention to make this Stanley Cup final a quick one.
If you were scoring this like a prize fight, you might even have the Rangers ahead through two games stretched over nearly eight periods of hockey. However, that was of little solace for a team that can’t help but wonder if a golden opportunity is slipping through its fingers.
“We played five periods,” New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said after Saturday’s 5-4 double overtime loss. “Obviously, the difference is not very big. Even the last game the difference is not big. You just have to stick with it and believe in each other and what we’re doing.
"It's good, it's definitely good enough; it's just one bounce here or there and it's a different score here."
This was frustrating in so many ways.
Lundqvist spent several contemplative moments with his head in his hands after allowing a Dustin Brown deflection to sneak by his glove after 90 minutes and 26 seconds of play. Just like in Game 1, the Rangers had blown a two-goal lead. In fact, they blew three of them.
However, they also felt that an injustice had been allowed because a Dwight King goal, which got Los Angeles back to 4-3 down early in the third period, was counted. The forward appeared to be impeding Lundqvist following a battle in front with Ryan McDonagh when a Matt Greene shot hit him and went in.
Lundqvist pleaded his case with referee Dan O'Halloran, but it was to no avail. He later told reporters that the entire game turned in that moment.
"He said the puck already passed me and I don't buy it," said Lundqvist. "That's a wrist shot that I'm just going to reach out for and I can't move."
Asked if interference should have been called on the play, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault snapped back: "Ask the NHL."
You can't help but notice the feeling of destiny that is currently surrounding this Kings team.
They've now won three consecutive overtime games and erased two-goal deficits in each one. However, they're also committing an uncharacteristic number of turnovers and relying on an explosive offence to negotiate the walk across the tightrope.
"I guess you look at the results, but we shouldn't because it's the way we play," said veteran Kings centre Jarrett Stoll. "Are we playing good or are we not? Right now we're doing a lot of things that aren't in our game, haven't been in our game for years here.
"We're getting away with it I think right now."
This one truly could have gone either way, especially during a wild first overtime period that had to leave every hockey fan giddy with excitement. At least those that were still able to breathe comfortably.
The Kings had a dangerous tip from Tanner Pearson and a point blank opportunity from Stoll and a wide open shot from King that went just wide. New York saw Chris Kreider hit a post and then miss on a breakaway, sandwiched around a Mats Zuccarello chance that went high over Jonathan Quick's glove.
Despite all of that, they played on.
"We had some chances and I really felt like we deserved this win," said Zuccarello, who became the first Norwegian ever to score in the Stanley Cup earlier in the evening.
"I thought we played a good game ... it's just the margins are small obviously," said teammate Anton Stralman. "It's tough to handle that we gave up the lead twice."
The Rangers have played good hockey in this series so far. They've demonstrated just how tough their speed can be to handle while forcing the Kings defencemen into a number of turnovers. However, they've yet to get the job done.
Losing twice after regulation is bound to take an emotional toll as well.
“There’s no handbook for how to handle overtime,” said Kings winger Justin Williams, who had three assists. “You either want to make the play or you’re out their filling space. We’ve got a team of guys who want to make a difference. In overtime, you’re taking short shifts and do whatever you can to make sure you’re at your best.”
This was a heavy hockey game. Jeff Carter and Dan Girardi each spent time in their respective dressing rooms after taking big hits in the opening minutes and it never eased up from there.
It must be said that this is one area where New York has shown a surprising amount of resistance. The Kings are a bigger team and their physicality was thought to be an advantage in this series, but that hasn't been the case.
As representatives of an Eastern Conference that is widely thought to be inferior to the West, there weren't a lot of people giving the Rangers much of a chance to become champions. Yet they've been right there in terms of play, if not results.
“I don’t give a s--- about underdogs," said frustrated New York forward Brian Boyle. "That’s ridiculous. Give me a break. We’re not. We’re here, too. We’re a good team and we can’t take any solace (in two close games) because we lost.
“We came here to win games. It doesn’t matter how the hell we do it, we have to win the game. If you don’t win the game you didn’t do what you came to do and that’s the worst feeling there is.”
We're heading to New York and the Kings are two victories from another Stanley Cup.
However, this one definitely isn't over yet -- even if it might look and feel that way to some.