They turned to the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, to handle the ceremonial opening face-off and there may have been a little serendipity there. Earlier in these playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings’ Justin Williams overtook Gretzky, Mark Messier and Doug Gilmour – a who’s who of big-game players – for the most points ever scored by an NHL player in the seventh game of a series. Williams has been known as Mr. Game 7 throughout these playoffs because the Kings have had to win a trio of seven-game series to get here, something that's never been done before.
So there was Williams, on Wednesday night, in the opening game of the Stanley Cup final against the New York Rangers, earning a new nickname.
Mr. Game 1!?
"I'd like to call him Mr. Game 1, 2, 3 and 4,” said Kings’ defenceman Willie Mitchell, after Williams scored the winning goal 4:36 into overtime to give the Kings a 3-2 victory over the visiting New York Rangers and take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. “It takes four wins. If he can do that three more times, that would be really nice."
Nice might be an understatement.
Williams’ goal helped the Kings produce yet another remarkable comeback in a playoff season full of them. They fell behind 2-0 early, playing an uncharacteristically sloppy brand of hockey. In all, they gave up three shorthanded breakaways, oodles of odd-man chances and generally played a game that is largely at odds with its defence-first mantra.
“Justin is the most underrated player on our team by a mile,” said Kings’ defenceman Drew Doughty. “He doesn't get enough credit for what he does. There are two guys on this team that I want to give the puck to, and that's him and Kopy (Anze Kopitar). When they have the puck, plays happen.”
And a play is just what the Kings needed to pull it out, largely thanks to the heroics of goaltender Jonathan Quick who, among other big saves, stopped the Rangers’ Carl Hagelin on a breakaway with seconds to go in regulation. Quick only had to make three saves in the third-period, but all three were on gold-plated scoring chances.
"It was not a good hockey game for us,” said Mitchell. “We kind of got away with one. Quickie was outstanding to let us find a little bit of legs.
“We still didn't have great legs out there. I think maybe the trainers put gumboots in our stalls instead of skates today. Sometimes, there's no rhyme or reason behind us. We just battled and relied on our goaltender way too much. We need to be better than that next game.
If you judge it strictly by the numbers, Quick has had an up-and-down playoff, with a save percentage just above .906, a goals-against average hovering dangerously close to three per game. Eighties numbers, old-school numbers and the sort of numbers Grant Fuhr used to put up for the Oilers when they were winning championships. All Fuhr did was make the key saves with the game on the line – and that’s what Quick has done for the Kings in these playoffs; and why coach Darryl Sutter said on the morning of the first game of Quick: “He's been fabulous. I’m not just looking at this year's playoffs. I look at the whole body of work. I tell Jonathan all the time, ‘you pick a goalie in one game, I want Jonathan Quick.’”
There was always a belief that if the Rangers’ best chance of making it a series would be to steal the first game, on the grounds that the Kings would be emotionally spent coming off their seven-game, sudden-death overtime victory over the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks last Sunday.
The Rangers were coming off six days of rest, while the Kings had to be fighting fatigue, which can be mental as much as physical. For 40 minutes it was close, but the Kings ran up a 20-3 edge in third-period shots and took over.
“I feel when you play against such a good opponent that has all that strength you need to play a full game,” said Rangers’ coach Alain Vigneualt. “For whatever reason tonight we just weren't good enough in the third.”
“I think they had a lot of energy and were fresh,” was how Sutter saw it. “If you look at their playoffs in the first periods, they've had really good first periods every game. I know, that we were not on full tanks.
The Kings’ reputation as a crisp defensive squad took a hit, as they made turnover after turnover in the early stages of a raggedly played game that featured defenceman Drew Doughty at both his best and his worst.
Doughty is a try-anything gambler, and it cost the Kings in the first period when Benoit Pouliot stripped him of the puck at his own blue line, Doughty trying to do a little toe-drag to get past him, Pouliot intercepting the puck and scoring on a subsequent breakaway. But wouldn’t you know it? One period later, Doughty had the courage to try the exact same high-risk move, this time slipping the puck past the Ranger checker, Derek Dorsett, and then pausing long enough to pick a spot and fire the tying goal past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Doughty’s teammates will tell you that he occasionally needs to be calmed down, because he can let his emotions get the better of him. That happened again in the second period when he took a high stick in the face from the Rangers’ Derrick Brassard that was not penalized; and then seconds later, his teammate Mike Richards was sent to the box when he got his stick up in Brassard’s face.
Quick made a point-blank save on Martin St. Louis from point-blank range on a delayed penalty in the first period. After Pouliot’s goal, Quick had to stop Brian Boyle on a shorthanded chance, with Mats Zuccarello in the box. Later, on the same Kings’ power play, Quick stopped Carl Hagelin on a clear breakaway, only to have the pursuing defenceman, Slava Voynov, direct the puck into the Kings’ goal, inadvertently, off his skate.
At that point, it was 2-0 Rangers and the capacity crowd at the Staples Centre, which featured the usual collection of celebrities, were stunned in silence.
But Kyle Clifford brought the Kings to within one, with his first playoff goal (and his first in 37 playoff games), chipping in a Jeff Carter feed. It stayed that way until Doughty’s second-period goal, set up by a soft cross-ice backhand pass from Williams. Clifford earned the other assist on the goal and then made a strong defensive play minutes later, diving flat to pokecheck the puck away from Hagelin, who was threatening to get away on a breakaway again. For Doughty, it was his 17th playoff point, breaking his own team record. Clifford’s two-point night was his first in three years, or since an April 2011 playoff series against the San Jose Sharks.
“This playoff it seems like there’s never a comfortable lead,” said St. Louis. “You’ve just got to keep pushing and do the things that make you successful. But that’s a good hockey team on the other side. They’re going to force you to make mistakes. It’s hockey. There’s two teams that are going after the same thing. For us, it’s one game. We’ll correct the mistakes and get right back at it.”
On media day, before the series started, Doughty acknowledged that he occasionally gets himself wound up too much, and then the emotion becomes counterproductive.
“When I get angry, I kind of turn it on,” said Doughty. “I try to throw my emotions in the right way. Sometimes I don't. Yeah, it's a bad turnover. I wasn't happy with myself. I didn't want to try to do too much to make up for it. I had to be a better player than I was on that play.”
In all, the Kings believe they executed a great escape Wednesday night.
"There's no doubt we believe any hockey game's within reach for us. Like I said, it goes deeper than this year. It goes back to 2012 when we made a run; overcame a lot of obstacles to get into the playoffs. When you have success and you win, you have a belief that anything's possible - and our group definitely has character and can rise to the challenge," said Mitchell.