By Steve Silverman
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It might be more palatable if the New York Rangers were coming back to Madison Square Garden knowing they had played badly in Los Angeles and could put a much better effort on the board in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
But the Rangers, down 2-0 in the series, have not played badly. They have played perhaps one substandard period — the third in Game 1 — in the first two games. Yet, because Justin Williams slammed a goal past Henrik Lundqvist in the opener and Dustin Brown deflected a shot past him Saturday night — both in overtime — the Rangers are in a serious hole right now.
The Los Angeles Kings are taking hockey truisms and destroying them right before our eyes. In this sport, one goal often represents Mount Everest. Rangers fans know this as well as anyone. It was a single goal that represented the difference between the Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh game in 1994 that brought the team its first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
The Rangers nursed a 3-2 lead to completion that night, as Craig MacTavish won a last-second face-off and Mike Richter stopped a nearly impossible shot from a long-forgotten player named Nathan LaFayette that allowed the team to celebrate the long-awaited championship.
More recently, it was a single goal by Dominic Moore coupled with a sensational goaltending effort by Lundqvist that allowed the Rangers to eliminate the Montreal Canadiens in six games and emerge as Eastern Conference champions.
One goal often represents the difference between a championship and what might have been.
But not to the Kings. They have fallen behind 2-0 in each of their last three games and have barely blinked. In addition to the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, they fell behind the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final at the United Center.
For any other team in Gary Bettman’s domain, that would have been the end of it. You simply don’t beat Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on their home ice by playing come-from-behind hockey. The Kings refused to adhere to that NHL fact of life.
The word that has often been used to describe the Kings’ ability to come from behind in the playoff is relentless. Falling behind by two goals is often depressing to even the best teams in the sport. But when the Kings find themselves behind by two goals, there is no depression, no panic and no problem.
Williams, the architect behind so much of the Kings’ seventh-game success they have enjoyed this spring, says that when he looks around the locker room he sees nothing but capability.
“I look at the faces when we’re down a goal and you know there’s confidence,” Williams said. “Between the second and third periods, I looked around and I didn’t see anyone scared. I saw a prepared team that knew what had to be done.”
There may have been some underestimation of the Kings before the start of the series. While they were favored, there was some thought that the Kings didn’t have the individual talent that the Blackhawks would have brought to the series, and that was a good thing for the Rangers.
It may be time to change that assessment. When the Kings can throw a third line of Williams, Jarrett Stoll and Dwight King out on the ice followed by a gritty fourth line of Kyle Clifford, Mike Richards and Trevor Lewis, that makes this team formidable.
This team that the Rangers are facing may be playing for the “D” word when they return to training camp next September. If they can win two out of five potential games, they will have earned their second Stanley Cup in three years. That means they will be going for three out of four next year, and that’s a dynasty by anyone’s standards.
The Kings still have to earn their second title, and the Rangers have been very near the top of their game as they return home to what should be a raucous building. But that hasn’t been quite enough so far.
It’s time for the Rangers to play to the standard they set in Game 6 against the Habs, and play as close to a perfect game as possible if they are going to keep the Kings from coming back from yet another deficit.
“Perfect” means playing smart for 60 minutes. They cannot take offensive-zone penalties or allow their sticks to flail wildly. They must also get the puck in deep when they cross the red line and not allow the Kings to get any easy breakouts.
The Rangers have learned how efficient and dangerous the Kings can be when the game is on the line, so they can’t do anything that gives them any extra reason for hope.
The grueling race for the Stanley Cup is nearing its climax, and the Rangers have reached a critical moment against a formidable opponent.
An opponent that has displayed a relentlessness that has rarely been seen over such a large sample size. It may take perfection to beat that opponent.
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