After an incredibly hard fought postseason that has seen 12 of the 14 series reach a Game 6 and half of them reach the hallowed ground of a Game 7, the Los Angeles Kings are poised to break out the brooms in Madison Square Garden tonight. In their quest to finish the first sweep since the first round and to avoid flying cross-country for another game, the Kings will again turn to battle-hardened goaltender Jonathan Quick to do what he does best: keep the puck out of the net at all costs. This year, however, he finally has a dangerous offense around him to take some of the weight off his shoulders, which is probably why the Kings find themselves sitting pretty with a 3-0 lead.
So how exactly did we get here? Despite what the win-loss column says, this series has been anything but a cakewalk for LA. The first two games were the reason we watch playoff hockey: multiple two-goal leads evaporating, three overtime periods, back and forth battles with both goalies standing on their heads to make saves, and the Kings pulling out two wins despite not leading for a second of game time. Game 1 featured a frenzied attack from the Kings who peppered Henrik Lundqvist all night, forcing the netminder to consistently sprawl out for his 40 saves. After LA erased a two-goal deficit in the second, Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick did their best impressions of brick walls for nearly 40 minutes of game time until “Mr. Game 7” Justin Williams snuck the deciding goal past King Henrik in overtime.
Game 2 was one of the most exciting games of the playoffs. Both teams traded scoring chances and power plays all night and the Kings again stormed back from multiple deficits, including a 4-2 score they obliterated in the third period on the strength of a highly controversial goal from Dwight King followed by the equalizer off the stick of playoff beast Marian Gaborik. We needed two overtime periods to finish this one, and the nine total goals obscured how well both goalies played again.
We headed into Game 3 expecting more of the same – high-flying offense warring with the best goalies in the game, a close game with a comeback thrown in for good measure – but instead we got more of a traditional playoff win, and an outcome reflective of Los Angeles’ dominant 3-0 record. Rather than the Kings’ frenetic offense swarming the ice, they did just enough to win, scoring three goals on only 15 shots. Rather than a goalie battle lurking under the offensive explosions we got a clear-cut winner, with Quick playing out of his mind to pitch a 32-save shutout. (That’s not to say Henrik was the “loser” – his low save percentage for the game doesn’t mirror how well he played. Blame/credit some unlucky bounces.)
And now here we are, approaching a game in which the Rangers find themselves backed into a corner – sound familiar? New York, and Lundqvist in particular, has played some of their best hockey in elimination games, and I don’t see that changing tonight. Yes, Los Angeles has played incredible these last few weeks. Yes, they have the “clutch” gene that’s so necessary in these high stake games, judging from their uncanny knack for comebacks and last-second heroics. And yes, they finally looked thoroughly dominant in Game 3, with their heralded goaltender, lockdown defense, and perfectly efficient offense firing on all cylinders simultaneously. But if you don’t think Lundqvist will win one game by himself in the friendly confines of MSG, you haven’t been paying attention this year. The way he’s been playing this series, he’s due for a classic Henrik performance – something like one goal and 39 saves, including three that will draw audible gasps from the crowd, with his offense doing just enough for the win. The Kings are too all-around excellent this year not to hoist the Cup, and they will probably do so before the week is out. But not before the Rangers make it difficult for them with a 2-1 win tonight, forcing the exhausted teams back to the West Coast this weekend. And if that happens…well, let’s just get through tonight and then we’ll see.