The play was a fitting dagger in a series filled with them for the Los Angeles Kings.
Mike Richards – much maligned, banished to the fourth line and a buyout candidate when this is all over – breezed over the blueline on a two-on-one and looked to pass to teammate Trevor Lewis over on the right wing.
In the way was the New York Rangers top defenceman, Ryan McDonagh, who deftly picked off the pass and broke up the rush, as he tends to do.
He had played it right – even his coach agreed. Only, this time, a curious hop put the puck – and a potential three-goal lead – right back on Richards’s stick.
Maligned or not, he didn’t miss.
Three games in, it’s been that kind of a series for the Rangers. They haven’t been so much outclassed as outbounced, with key mistakes becoming timely goals against and key saves never coming right when they need them.
So it was again on Monday in Game 3, with the Kings pulling out to their first lead of the series late in the first period and sneaking two more past Henrik Lundqvist – including Richards’s tally – in the second as part of what became a 3-0 win in front of a stunned Madison Square Garden crowd.
Unlike Games 1 and 2, New York carried the balance of play, drawing more penalties and ringing up more than double the shots on goal (32-15) in a desperate bid to get back into the series.
But Kings’ netminder Jonathan Quick had an answer there and delivered perhaps his best game of the postseason, making a statement when goaltending hadn’t been the story despite two thrilling overtime games back in LA.
That was enough.
“He was obviously the best player on the ice tonight,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault lamented quietly afterward, exasperation on his face.
“One of the best goaltenders in the world,” said Richards, who already has one Cup that came in large part thanks to Quick’s play.
No one would argue the Rangers have been the better team in this series, one thwarted merely by a hot goalie or the hockey gods. But they have been better than this ugly 0-3 hole, skating with the favoured Kings in all three games and rarely looking overwhelmed.
But, here they are, one win from becoming the first team swept in the finals since the 1998 Washington Capitals – and with a fair argument they’ve deserved more.
“Not a bad first, not a bad second and you’re down by three,” was the game summary from Brad Richards, the Rangers de facto captain. “It’s hard to figure sometimes, but that’s the fine line this time of year.”
Fittingly, the Kings opened the scoring for the first time in this series in as painful a way as possible, a goal that set the tone for what was to come.
After a back-and-forth – and nearly whistle-less – first 20 minutes, the Rangers were retreating as the last seconds ticked away when Justin Williams and Jeff Carter created something out of nothing.
Williams opened a seam with a pretty pass, drawing in a defender toward the boards in the process. Carter then fired the puck off a sprawling Dan Girardi’s skate and past his handcuffed goalie.
Time on the clock? Less than a second.
“Cartsy’s goal was the big one,” the Kings’ Richards said.
“That was their only chance in the first period,” Vigneault offered, noting they’d outchanced the Kings 4-1 by their count.
Then again, that’s the way this has unfolded for New York, with one backbreaking play after another completely sinking the confidence of what had been a pretty resilient team.
Counted out by most in Round 2, they rallied in impressive fashion to beat Sidney Crosby and the Penguins from down 3-1 in that series.
Blown out in Game 5 in the third round in Montreal – with Lundqvist getting the hook and Rene Bourque of all people ringing up a hat trick – they put on a defensive clinic two nights later in Game 6, lifting the franchise back into the final for the first time in two decades.
It’s been the year of the comeback throughout the NHL playoffs, too. The Kings have already staged two rallies from down 2-0 in this series alone, adding to a trend that started with a wild first round for the entire league.
They weren’t happy with their play and vowed to be better in Game 3.
“We’re proud of that,” Williams had said of their ability to overcome pretty much anything. “But we know we don’t want to give any life to this team.”
And they didn’t.
Year of the comeback or no, it’d be insane to forecast anything but a swift end to this now, even if this hasn’t been as lopsided as 3-0 suggests. This could even go down as one of the closest sweeps ever – for whatever limited comfort that is to the Rangers – but it won’t be turning the other way.
The Kings may have done it to San Jose in Round 1, but they are simply too good to give back four games in a row, two of which would be at home. They’ve been here before, they’re in the driver’s seat and they know it – looking as confident as any team can be.
As they should be. They’re this year’s team of destiny – and it’s a safe bet they’ll be carrying the Cup over their heads for the second time in three years by Wednesday night.
Or Friday at the latest.
“The fourth one is always the toughest one,” said Kings centre Anze Kopitar, one of three Conn Smythe candidates along with teammates Drew Doughty and Williams. “We’re going to recharge, refocus and get back at it on Wednesday.”
“We’re fortunate right now to get some bounces,” Mike Richards added. “Hopefully that continues.”