NEW YORK – A pall loomed over the tight quarters of the New York Rangers dressing room Tuesday afternoon, mere hours after their hopes of capturing Lord Stanley's mug dimmed to the very faintest light.
A third straight loss has them staring dead in the eye of elimination and try as they might, belief of some valiant comeback was difficult to summon on this day. The faces were long, sour and glum ahead of Game 4 at MSG on Wednesday night, to be expected in light of a gaping 3-0 series hole.
"I'm not going to lie to you, it's a tough day today," said a particularly downcast Brad Richards, the 34-year-old's dreams of a second Cup fading dramatically after a 3-0 loss in Game 3. "I mean, the goal is to get through today and [Wednesday] will be a Stanley Cup playoff game-day and I'm sure everybody will be in a lot better mood, a lot better outlook to try to get in and win a game."
"Belief is everything," Martin St. Louis said, his beard speckled with grey in the final days of the postseason. "Right now, it's a big mountain to climb but once you get into battle … first shift you get into battle, get into the game, win a game and now it's 3-1 and you go from there. You can't look at trying to win four. You're trying to win one."
Despite the appearance of a one-sided series, the Rangers know full well that this Cup Final has been anything but; two overtime games that could've gone either way followed by Jonathan Quick's brilliance in a Game 3 during which they controlled puck possession.
But as Rangers coach Alain Vigneault put it – his mood predictably sour – none of that matters now. One game is all that counts. One more loss and hope of adding the first Cup in New York in 20 years dies a quiet death. "Whatever talk you might use, at the end of the day for us right now, it's about one game," Vigneault said. "That's as simple and logical and realistic as I can put it for you. We have to focus on one game and that's what we're going to do."
Though it matters little at this point, as stressed by Vigneault, the even nature of the series does offer the slightest bit of belief for the Rangers. Heavy underdogs coming into the series, they've stood toe-to-toe with the Kings, felled by their opponent's will under duress, unmatched depth and an unfortunate bounce or two.
"It's not like we've been outplayed here – that's not been the case," said Henrik Lundqvist, appearing most at ease amongst a tense New York group. "They've been good, but I think we've been playing pretty good, as well. It comes down to a couple plays here and there. That's been the difference in these games. But it starts with your belief and it starts with how you approach this game and the games after that. But they know it's possible and we know it's possible."
Only four teams have ever rallied from a 3-0 series deficit, including L.A. in the opening round against San Jose.
New York dug out from a 3-1 deficit itself in the second round against the Penguins, winning Game 7 on the road in Pittsburgh. This task, however, opposite maybe the most complete and mentally-tested team in the league, is almost beyond comprehension.
Felled by Quick's 32 saves in Game 3, adjustments for the next one are simple for the head coach.
"Score," said Vigneault, hopeful that the 28-year-old Kings goaltender wasn't locked in again on Wednesday night.
A power play goal for a group that's managed one in 14 opportunities might be of help as well. "You keep repeating the process," added Richards, the Rangers centre held without a point through three games, "firing more on net, and you'd expect eventually something is going to go in. For sure, you can always will words and battle and all that, you can talk about it, be better. The third period of Game 1, the ice was tilted, but overall the ice hasn't felt that tilted in this series. They're a calm, cool, collected team that doesn't get rattled and it just seems that they're scoring at the right times and getting big saves at the right times."
At their darkest point, the sky notably cloudy in midtown Manhattan, the Rangers were simply trying to summon some kind of light.
"It's the waiting and thinking that's the tough part," Richards said. "We've gotta get back in the battle and see where it goes."