NEW YORK — A hockey game unfolds at such a high rate of speed that it’s often tough to process which way it’s going. So what you do is you look for signs and we got a pretty big one about where this Stanley Cup final is headed with less than a second to play in the first period of Game 3.
By any measure, this should not have been a Los Angeles Kings goal.
The puck was still in their defensive zone with only six seconds remaining in the period. Then you had a quick Slava Voynov outlet pass, which Jeff Carter deftly deflected onto the stick of Justin Williams at centre ice. Williams carried the puck into the offensive zone 1-on-2, slid it around Rick Nash and watched as Carter buried it with the help of a deflection off the skate of a diving Dan Girardi.
There were 0.8 seconds to play and it was 1-0 Los Angeles. It felt more like 10-0.
“It’s just one of those plays where, with a little luck there that puck ends up in the netting or the glass,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said after Monday’s 3-0 loss. “Unfortunately, half a second left and it ended up in our net.”
“It’s a crushing feeling for them when the puck goes in with a second left in the period,” said Kings defenceman Drew Doughty.
This is bound to be one of the idle thoughts that crosses the minds of the New York players during a summer full of remorse. The Stanley Cup is all but over; it could be the first sweep in the championship series since 1998.
What will be toughest for them to come to grips with is the way this has played out. They’ve gone stride for stride with Los Angeles through three games and can’t seem to buy a break — let alone a timely goal.
Once the Kings finally close this thing out, they might consider a trip to Las Vegas. You have to be good to be lucky and they’ve certainly been a bit of both. Consider that Jake Muzzin’s goal to make it 2-0 deflected off Rangers penalty killer Marty St. Louis before Mike Richards’ insurance marker came when he attempted to pass the puck on a 2-on-1, only to see it hit Ryan McDonagh’s skate and come right back to him.
“You try to stay positive right now, but it’s tough,” said Lundqvist. “It’s really tough. I think we’re doing a lot of good things but when you look at the goals, you know, we put two in our net and just a tough play on the third one. At some point you’re going to have to need some puck luck and we don’t have any right now.
“It feels like they have all of it.”
Of course, we can’t go any further without mentioning the play of Jonathan Quick. The Kings hero from 2012 has only been average through most of these playoffs, but he stole this game with a 32-save shutout.
The two most spectacular ones came courtesy of his “Warrior” goal stick, which he used first to deny Mats Zuccarello from scoring into a wide open net in the first period before turning away Derick Brassard on a dangerous opportunity in the second.
“It’s tough to talk about right now,” said Zuccarello.
In all, the Rangers squandered six power-play opportunities on a night where they had more than their share of chances to break through. Even after it had got to 3-0 for the Kings, Chris Kreider had a breakaway in the opening seconds of the third period.
How different might things have been if he cashed in on it?
From there, Los Angeles did a solid job of locking things down while the clock ticked towards zero. You couldn’t help but miss the dejected look that washed over the Rangers as all of the energy was slowly drained out of Madison Square Garden.
The first two games of this series were wild, rollicking affairs that you left feeling like anything might happen. Once Game 3 hit a certain point, there was a stunning sense of inevitability.
“This was more our style,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “We grind away, get an important goal at the end of one, find a power-play goal. We waited for our chances, got a two-on-one goal.”
“We wanted to get the lead and stifle them,” added teammate Jarrett Stoll.
Now Los Angeles is so close to its second championship in three years that it will be tough not to think about lifting that 35-pound silver trophy in the air. They can feel it now.
What a ride after coming back from 3-0 down to San Jose in the first round and surviving three consecutive Games 7s on the road to get here.
“I mean, hell, we got thrown under the bus by everybody on earth seven weeks ago, right?” Kings coach Darryl Sutter noted wryly.
Down the hall, in the crowded home dressing room, it was tough to ignore the doom and gloom. Some of the players attempted to put on a brave face.
“You can’t look at it that we have to win four straight,” said Lundqvist. “It’s possible, but right now we want to get one win and then you start building from there.”
That is the kind of talk you expect to hear right now. The Rangers are so close, yet so far, from realizing their dreams and that has to be a toxic mix of disappointment and frustration and anxiety.
And when their heads finally hit the pillow late Monday night, you know that there was one moment that had to be running on repeat: The goal from Carter that came so close to the buzzer that it had to be confirmed with video review.
“That’s a tough one,” said Nash. “Any time you give up a goal in the last minute of the period, let alone last second, it’s a huge momentum swing for them. There were still two periods left, so we can’t make that our excuse.”
It may not have been an excuse, but it certainly felt like a sign.