By Steve Silverman
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The dreaded two-goal lead.
The Rangers had it once again after Marty St. Louis banged in a fortuitous puck that slid right into his wheelhouse with a little more than six minutes gone in the second period of Game 4 on Wednesday.
The Rangers, of course, had 2-0 leads over the Los Angeles Kings during the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final as well, and those advantages quickly disappeared. A two-goal deficit to the Kings is similar to the starter’s pistol for a sprinter. That’s when they take off and put the pressure on.
The pressure did not start right away, as St. Louis’ goal gave the Rangers even more energy. Tyler Toffoli of the Kings was sent to the penalty box shortly thereafter, and the Rangers had a chance to do what the Kings did Monday night – build a 3-0 lead with the power play.
The Rangers were putting the pressure on in the final minute of that man advantage, and when the puck came back to Dan Girardi at the right point as the penalty was expiring, it seemed the critical moment had arrived.
Girardi wound up for a slap shot that could have resulted in a goal, a deflection, a rebound or a wicked pass off the boards (if the shot had been wide), and the Garden crowd held its breath to see what would develop.
Instead, disaster struck. Girardi’s stick snapped just below the knob as he made contact with the ice inches behind the puck, and the vulcanized rubber disc slithered to Dustin Brown.
The Kings’ forward accepted the gift, took off straight away for Henrik Lundqvist in the Rangers goal and deked three times before tucking the puck in the back of the net with a deft forehand. Instead of 3-0 Rangers, it was a 2-1 game and just about everyone knew what was coming next: An onslaught.
Girardi felt awful. He had a chance to give the Rangers complete control of the game, but instead was the catalyst for a Kings comeback. They had come back from two-goal margins throughout the playoffs, and if they had done it again Wednesday, the Rangers’ season would have ended.
“I think everyone was just shaking their heads at that one where my knob broke on my stick,” Girardi said.
It got worse for Girardi from there. Late in the second period, after the Kings had put dominating pressure on Lundqvist, the Rangers defenseman found himself sprinting towards his own net as Jeff Carter had the puck on the left side.
Carter, one of the fastest skaters in the league when he reaches full stride, was sprinting. He quickly went by Girardi and cut into the middle on what NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk regularly refers to as a “power move.”
Carter appeared to have Girardi and Lundqvist right where he wanted them. He held onto the puck as he skated in front of the net and he thought he had the tying goal on his stick. Girardi’s two-handed swing did not impede him, but Lundqvist’s left pad kept the puck out of the net.
Girardi breathed a sigh of relief moments later as the second period ended with the Rangers still owning their 2-1 lead.
The third period was the true onslaught, as the Kings took over the game. They outshot the Rangers 15-1, and Girardi’s difficulties continued.
When a team has the lead in the third period, the tendency to sit back and play defensive hockey is almost inevitable. The Rangers did that throughout the period, and they appeared to give the Kings chance after chance. Instead of getting the puck out of the zone, getting it over the red line and firing it deep into the Kings’ zone, the Rangers were struggling.
They managed to get it out of their own zone, but they struggled to cross the red line and rarely got it deep. Girardi was particularly vulnerable, as he flipped the puck out of the zone and those giveaways led to Kings’ possessions that resulted in strong scoring opportunities. Luckily, Lundqvist was on top of his game.
But as the pressure continued to mount while the minutes ticked off the clock, Alain Vigneault did not hesitate to send Girardi back out there.
He may have been struggling, but he was leaving everything on the ice. He was getting in front of every Kings shot he could reach and was ultimately credited with six blocked shots, including five in the third period.
No other Ranger had more than three blocks.
Girardi was on the ice in the final minute when the Kings pulled Jonathan Quick. He was right in front of the net and he sold out to keep the puck from getting past Lundqvist.
The goalie was certainly huge and the architect of the win, but Girardi fought through his night of adversity and helped keep the Rangers alive to play a fifth game in the series.
A miracle may not be at hand just yet, but the seeds for a memorable comeback have been planted.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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