NEW YORK — Making ice in June is hard work. Making high quality ice in the soupy humidity enveloping this city right now is damn near impossible.
So were you to hang around Madison Square Garden on Wednesday afternoon you would have seen a team of men tending to the frozen water housed in this building as they might a newborn baby. Dan Craig, the NHL’s expert on such things, was applying his craft with particular zeal — at one point standing near centre ice and gesturing passionately towards a colleague.
Yet, despite everyone’s best efforts, the tiniest snowbank had formed in Henrik Lundqvist’s crease hours later as a tension-filled third period moved towards its climax. And that unwanted collection of snow might have saved the New York Rangers season.
“It’s probably the product of moving a lot,” Lundqvist surmised. “I stay deep in the net, so there’s a lot of snow there.”
The Rangers goalie had come out ever-so-slightly to challenge an Alec Martinez point shot that got tipped by Tanner Pearson with 71 seconds to play. The puck slid through him and moved towards the goal line. Then it hit the snow and stopped abruptly.
“Thank God for soft ice now and then,” New York coach Alain Vigneault said after a 2-1 win.
As much as that play was about the presence of mind of Derek Stepan, who wisely swept the puck to safety without covering it with his glove, it also came down to sheer dumb luck. The same luck the Rangers felt they had been missing while falling behind 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Final.
“I think we deserved that after our bounces in the first three games,” said forward Rick Nash.
“We probably play our worst game of the series and we win,” added teammate Mats Zuccarello.
Benoit Pouliot opened the scoring with a slick deflection before Marty St. Louis found a puck on his stick at the side of the goal after Martinez had tried to break up a pass. From the moment he put New York up 2-0, the Kings dominated possession and the shot clock. To the tune of 27-6.
There had also been an eerily similar moment midway through the first period when a Martinez shot snuck past Lundqvist and stopped dead on the goal-line. With Jeff Carter whacking at it, Anton Stralman instead knocked it under his goaltender.
“He got and we got a few bounces,” Vigneault said of Lundqvist, who finished with 40 saves. “You need those. Maybe the luck is changing a little bit.”
It seems that so much of this series has centred around bounces and deflections and shots off goalposts. The Rangers, in particular, have been fixated on signs from the heavens.
Lundqvist acknowledged that he thought “here we go again” when the knob of Dan Girardi’s stick broke during a second-period power play and Kings captain Dustin Brown came roaring in on a breakaway to make it 2-1 at 8:46 of the second period. He surely felt better when Marian Gaborik rang a shot off his crossbar or those two pucks stopped an inch short of heartbreak.
“I’ve been in the game a long time to know that sometimes the hockey gods are there,” said Vigneault. “They were there tonight.”
As the Kings tried to finish off the first Stanley Cup sweep since 1998, there was an undeniably strange feeling hanging in the air.
Mark Messier was shown on the scoreboard during an early stoppage in play and flashed four fingers to the crowd — a gesture that might be interpreted as a modern day guarantee. Michael J. Fox and John McEnroe later followed suit, which proved that a little fun could be had at a game that might have been the last of this season.
The mood soon became heavy and tense as the Rangers tried desperately to hang on for the final 20 minutes. The only shot they registered on goal came off a neutral zone dump in from Ryan McDonagh. Meanwhile, Los Angeles threw 15 pucks at Lundqvist.
Once relief had set in, the King had a chuckle while recalling that last one that slid under him before stopping short.
“I thought I had it because I felt the puck, felt like I got a good piece of it on that deflection,” said Lundqvist. “I was yelling at the ref to blow the whistle. Then I realized it was behind me for a couple seconds.
“I actually apologized, but he was cool about it.”
Had that one counted and this game went to overtime, this series would likely be over. The Kings had a look of desperation in their eyes and desperately wanted to finish this thing off right here and now.
“We had a lot of good opportunities,” said coach Darryl Sutter. “But you’ve got to finish. Only going to get a handful (of chances) most nights against the New York Rangers. You’ve got to finish a couple of them.”
“We were that close,” said Pearson, who had a game-high eight shots. “If we were able to put those in or tap those in, then it’s a whole different hockey game.”
The Kings had all of their friends and family in the building for what could have been a festive occasion. After the game, team president Luc Robitaille trailed a group of them through the bowels of the arena, past an area where Phil Pritchard had only minutes before been with the Stanley Cup.
Keeping that big silver trophy in its case a little bit longer was all the New York players could focus on as they arrived at the rink on a sweaty day.
“We didn’t want to see the Cup coming out on our home ice tonight,” said Lundqvist. “Yeah, just the thought of it makes me feel sick.”
The only goal now is finding a way to get back here for another game before the ice is melted for the summer.