NEW YORK - The Stanley Cup final made its much anticipated return to Broadway Monday night with high hopes for rave reviews and an extended run.
Instead of delivering a show-stopping performance, however, the hometown New York Rangers bombed and are in deep trouble following a 3-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 3 of the best-of-seven series.
The Cup will be in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday as the heavily favoured Kings will look to finish off the first sweep in the championship round since 1998.
The Rangers, so agonizingly close to pulling off an upset in each of the first two games, never had a lead to blow this time, and thus were never really in this one despite a heavy 32-15 edge in shots.
For that, the Kings can thank the brilliant play of goaltender Jonathan Quick, who flashed the playoff MVP form he showed two years ago when Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup for the first time. That and three goals of their own that were deflected behind Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, plus the resolve to put the hammer down on a clearly overmatched opponent.
By the end of the second period with the home team trailing by three goals, the life had been sucked out of the venerable Garden, which hadn’t played host to a Cup final contest since 1994 when the Rangers last won a championship.
Despite never having a lead at any point of play in the series prior to Monday’s game, the Kings are now a win away from wrapping up a second title in three years and extending the Western Conference’s winning streak in the Cup final.
Though the Rangers hopes took a serious blow in California, the series may well have been clinched during a near dominant stretch midway through the second period when the Rangers had a 12-0 run in shots during two power plays. The Kings had a 2-0 lead at the time, but instead of letting the hard-luck underdogs get a foothold in the final, Quick shut the door.
He robbed Derek Brassard twice, made a great darting leg save on Benoit Pouliot and stopped everything else that was thrown his way.
Despite not scoring, the Rangers were in it for much of the first period and then disaster – and a bad break – struck. Jeff Carter’s deflected wrist shot found the net behind Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with just 0.7 seconds remaining in the period.
There were more bad bounces for the Rangers, who certainly haven’t had luck on their side. The second goal, a Jake Muzzin wrist shot from the point on the power-play, deflected off of Martin St. Louis and behind Lundqvist at 4:17 of the middle period.
And then the dagger, given it came near the end of a period that the Rangers had dominated. Mike Richards got the break as an attempted pass banked off of Ryan McDonagh back to the Kings forward, who buried it with 2:46 remaining in the second period.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have seen their big-money players go missing. Rick Nash, so brilliant for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics, has been near invisible these playoffs and in the final. He has company with another big-ticket player, Brad Richards. Lundqvist had given up three goals on 13 shots through two periods and is now 6-5 at home this post season.
Prior to the Game 3, Rangers coach Alan Vigneault said Monday’s contest was as close to a must-win as you can have. There are plenty of reasons for that assessment, but at the top of the list is the fact that the 26 teams that have had a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven final have won 25 times. The only exception? The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and their historic comeback over the Detroit Red Wings.
It certainly appears that the Rangers squandered their opportunity in Los Angeles where they blew two-goal leads in both games as they lacked both a knockout punch and an overtime bounce. That led to the bizarre fact that until Carter’s goal late in the first period, the Kings hadn’t held a lead in a game for 2 hours, 49 minutes and 14 seconds of playing time, a span covering four games in which they had a 3-1 record.
As brilliant as Quick was, he had some help, too. At one point earlier in the third period, Kings players had blocked more Rangers shots (14) than Lundqvist had stopped (13).
There will be plenty of talk in the 48 hours before the potential clincher about the Rangers still having a pulse and believe it if you want. But more and more it looks like the championship was really won in the thrilling Western Conference final victory over the Blackhawks.
The Stanley Cup final, meanwhile, has a feel like a victory lap. And the Kings are ready to claim their second crown in three seasons.