NEW YORK – On this day, at least, it was the King and not the Kings standing at the very top of the castle.
Henrik Lundqvist did all he could to keep the Cup from seeing the light of day on Wednesday night, stopping nearly every piece of rubber flung his way in a do-or-die tilt for the Rangers at MSG. Vowing to raise the level of his performance just a day earlier, Lundqvist did that and more, turning aside 40 of 41 shots in a 2-1 Game 4 win.
“It was pretty self-explanatory out there,” said Dan Girardi. “He was the King tonight for us, making huge saves when he had to.”
Girardi's unfortunate broken stick catapulted the Kings to their only goal on Lundqvist, a breakaway marker from Dustin Brown midway through the middle period. It was from that point on that the 32-year-old simply took over, preserving the Rangers one-goal lead amidst an avalanche of incredible pressure from an L.A. squad intent on capturing the Cup for the second time in three years.
New York was outshot 15-1 in the final period and an unimaginable 26-3 over the final 31-plus minutes of regulation, completely dominated by the Cup-hungry Kings. Lundqvist turned every shot aside though, rising to every challenge his rivals could muster.
“Goaltender was real good,” said head coach Alain Vigneault with a smile, asked how the Rangers managed to preserve a 2-0 lead after failing to do so in Games 1 and 2. “He had to make some huge saves in the second and the third. He got and we got a few bounces. You need those. Maybe the luck is changing a little bit.”
Believing the breaks had been against them in the opening three games, the Rangers saw that luck turn in their favour in remarkable fashion on this night. On not one, but two occasions did a puck sneak through the pads of Lundqvist and land squarely on the goal-line, kept at bay by morsels of snow before a Ranger could calmly swat it away – first Anton Stralman midway through the first frame and later Derek Stepan in the dying moments of regulation.
“Don't fool yourself either,” said Stepan. “Hank stood on his head. He made some big saves at big times for us. Those are the big plays we need at certain moments to keep the momentum or shift the momentum. Hank stood tall and he's a big part of why we're going back to L.A.”
Lundqvist and the Rangers are now 11-2 in their last 13 games when facing elimination, the King entering the night with a .957 save percentage in such situations.
“When everything is on the line, you just have to challenge yourself the right way, I guess, as a team and personally,” said Lundqvist, who allowed 11 goals in the first three games against the Kings. “You have to go out there and leave everything out there and be extremely focused. One mistake and the season is over. You're definitely aware of that. When you go out to these types of games where you know everything can be over after this period or after the next two periods.”
Despite relentless waves of pressure over the final period and a half the Kings believed they could do more to disrupt the Rangers Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender.
“I think we can do a better job getting to him,” said Anze Kopitar, one of only three Kings without a shot on goal. “I think [there were] a couple of times where we didn't make it tough on him. The pucks were sitting there. But the pucks he's gonna see, he's gonna stop. That's just how it is.”
Despite owning the back half of Wednesday's game, L.A. is now forced to make the long flight back west in hopes of procuring the Cup on home ice. It was two years earlier in the 2012 Final that they raced out to a 3-0 series lead only to drop Games 4 and 5 to the Devils before finally emerging with the first Cup in franchise history at Staples Center in Game 6.
“We're going back home, that's where we won it last time, hopefully we can do the same thing again,” said Drew Doughty.
The Rangers, meanwhile, were searching for just one win, viewing Game 4 as a best-of-one they had no choice but to capture. Rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the second round against the Penguins, their focus now shifts to bringing the series back to the Garden for Game 6 and hopefully beyond.
“Well, we went into this game with the approach that we wanted to win at home in front of our fans,” said Lundqvist. “That was our approach. We got that accomplished. Now we're looking for the next game.”