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LOS ANGELES — The New York Rangers have been tagged with the underdog label in this Stanley Cup Final, yet they were far from overwhelmed in Game 1.
In fact, in retrospect, the Rangers will look at their 3-2 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night at Staples Center as a missed opportunity after blowing a two-goal lead in the first period and missing the net on 21 shot attempts.
Justin Williams scored the winner at 4:36 of overtime off Dan Girardi’s turnover in the Rangers’ zone, lifting a shot over Henrik Lundqvist (40 saves) from his wide-open position low in the slot.
Game 2 is Saturday at Staples Center.
The Kings did hold a decided advantage in puck possession, and Jonathan Quick made several crucial saves among his 24 stops.
While the Rangers have shown resiliency through this postseason run, namely in rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to the Penguins in the second round, Los Angeles has been, well, the Kings of that category in the playoffs.
After rallying from a 3-0 series deficit against the Sharks in the first round, the Kings became the first NHL team to advance to the Cup Final to need to win a Game 7 victory – all on the road, no less — in each of the first three rounds.
“You have a Stanley Cup champion from two years ago that just beat the Stanley Cup champions,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, referring to the Kings and their win over Chicago in the West finals. “You’ve got a team that fought their way real hard to get here, to get an opportunity. We’ve got an opportunity. We’re going to try and make the best of it.”
But once the Kings found their game after spotting the Rangers a two-goal lead, they become the aggressors, helped by the Rangers’ inability to shoot straight. The Kings took the first 13 shots of the third period, in which they outshot the Rangers, 20-3.
Yet the Rangers still nearly prevailed in regulation as Quick had to make a glove save to prevent Carl Hagelin’s second short-handed breakaway goal at 19:19. Hagelin then hustled back down ice and made a sliding stop at the left post to prevent Jeff Carter winning it on a wraparound.
The official start of the Cup Final at the cavernous Staples Center — ear-splitting loud between the P.A. system and the boisterous fans — came with The Great One dropping the ceremonial first puck between Kings captain Dustin Brown and de facto Rangers captain Brad Richards.
Wayne Gretzky, who finished his legendary career with three seasons as a Ranger, is credited with saving the NHL in Los Angeles after the Oilers, due to financial constraints, dealt him to the Kings in 1988.
Once the non-ceremonial faceoff started the game, the Rangers speed caught the Kings off guard.
Quick, going to his back, robbed Marty St. Louis at 9:12 of the first period but the Rangers took a 1-0 lead at 13:21 as Benoit Pouliot skated on to the puck in the neutral zone after Drew Doughty’s turnover and beat Quick on a breakaway.
That became 2-0 at 15:03 as Hagelin skated past Slava Voynov for a short-handed backhand that Quick stopped. However, the rebound deflected in off Voynov’s leg at the left post. Kyle Clifford cut it to 2-1 at 17:33 after Derek Stepan failed to clear the puck from the Rangers’ zone and Carter fed Clifford at the left post from behind the crease.
Doughty made up for his earlier gaffe with a highlight-reel goal to tie the game at 2 at 6:36 of the second. He skated past the Rangers’ fourth line as he went between his legs to go around Derek Dorsett, and stopping short just as defenseman Anton Stralman dropped to his knee to defend before beating Lundqvist between his right arm and body to the stick side.
It marked the 23rd time in this postseason a team has lost a 2-0 lead.
Clifford, who assisted on Doughty’s goal as well as Carter’s, prevented a second breakaway by Hagelin with a perfectly time dived to knock the puck away.