As you watched the New York Rangers’ season saved on Wednesday night by a soft mound of slushy springtime snow gathered in a heap behind goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, you probably rolled your eyes and wondered, are these the longest playoffs ever?
Officially, the answer as of Friday will be yes.
When the Los Angeles Kings get a second crack at clinching the 2014 Stanley Cup in the fifth game of their best-of-seven series with the Rangers, it will mark the 93rd game of the NHL’s 2014 playoff season, the most in history.
The previous high of 92 games was set back in 1991 and that year, the Pittsburgh Penguins had the decency to wrap up their series against the Minnesota North Stars on May 25 – practically winter by the standards of the current, never-ending NHL season.
For the Kings, up 3-1 in the series, Friday’s game at the Staples Center will be their 26th playoff game of the spring, tying the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2004 Calgary Flames for the all-time high. Darryl Sutter coached that ’04 Flames team and understands better than most how hard it is to close a team out.
Calgary had two chances to do it that year and failed both times. The Rangers have won five elimination games in these playoffs, the Kings seven – both teams showing an extraordinary ability to win when it matters the most.
Fatigue, mental or physical, isn’t something that either team is prepared to admit now, not this close to the finish line, not with this much at stake.
"You gotta realize what you're playing for, who you're playing, what it's all about, why you play the game,” said Kings’ centre Jarret Stoll, after the team’s optional practice Thursday. “This is why you play the game. It doesn't matter how many games you've played. You've got energy, you've got jump - or you should, if you realize what you're playing for. Yeah, it's a lot of games, but that's why we play."
As they did in their three previous rounds, the Kings have made a habit of winning games in which they were outplayed territorially and losing games in which they played pretty well. In the first six games of the Blackhawks series, Sutter figured the three best games his team played were the ones they actually lost. It’s similar in this series.
The Kings were the better team for longer stretches of Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers than they were when they jumped out to a 3-0 series lead. Maybe the hockey gods were evening the score – as far as rational analysis went, more players and coaches fell back on “puck luck” to describe the events of that game as any line juggling or other strategic adjustment.
It didn’t hurt either that Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was sharp when the Kings put on their usual third-period press. According to Lundqvist, the Kings can sneak up on you with their efficiency.
“This team, they do every little thing right,” Lundqvist explained. “They make it tough for you in every little situation. Sometimes you think you have everything under control, and they create something from basically nothing. You have to be on your toes all the time … and a couple times you just have to rely on your teammates and luck.”
Luck is difficult to quantify, predict or measure, and according to Williams, represents nothing but an excuse for not putting in the work.
“Puck luck is for cop-outs,” Williams said. “I don't believe in that at all. I'm a true believer that you get what you put into it. [Wednesday] night we simply weren't good enough and we didn't get paid off.
“In the grand scheme of things, we need to be better in Game 5 than we were in Game 4.”
Lundqvist caught a break in Game 4 when two pucks that might have been gone in under optimal ice conditions came to rest on the goal line. One of the ironies of this series is that the outdoor ice the Kings played on at Dodger Stadium in January might be better than what they’ll skate on Friday.
Another is that unlike last season, when selecting the appropriate Chicago Blackhawk for the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, proved problematic because there really was no single standout candidate, there are options galore on the Kings’ side.
This time around, you can make compelling arguments on behalf of four Kings – defenceman Drew Doughty, forwards Anze Kopitar, Williams and Jeff Carter – and decent cases for Marian Gaborik and even goaltender Jonathan Quick. There actually was a Conn Smythe vote Wednesday, but the results were discarded after the Rangers’ win. The voting panel will assemble again Friday when the resilient Kings try to close it out at home, with only one goal in mind.
“Just win – that's with a big period and exclamation point after it,” Williams said. “I don't care where it is.
“Win one more.”
In the longest year of a compelling playoff, there isn’t much else to add.