By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Henrik Lundqvist pulled off 40 saves as the New York Rangers held their nerve to edge the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 on Wednesday and avoid being swept in the Stanley Cup Final while reviving slim hopes of winning their first championship in two decades.
Needing a victory to extend the best-of-seven series, the Rangers survived a ferocious fightback from the Kings to win a heart-pounding Game Four at Madison Square Garden and send the teams back to California.
Roared on by their long-suffering fans, New York got goals from Benoit Pouliot and Martin St. Louis while their inspirational Swedish netminder succeeded in stonewalling the Kings’ offense after he conceded a breakaway goal to the Kings’ captain Dustin Brown.
“They threw everything they had at us. Our goaltender stood tall, gave us a chance,” said a relieved New York head coach Alain Vigneault.
“He had to make some huge saves in the second and the third. He got, and we got, a few bounces. You need those. Maybe the luck is changing a little bit.”
The odds are still heavily stacked against the Rangers winning another three consecutive elimination games to capture their first NHL title since 1994 with the series headed to Los Angeles on Friday for Game Five.
The Kings clinched their first Stanley Cup title on home ice two years ago and defenseman Drew Doughty said he was confident his side could finish things off at home this time.
“We would have liked to finish it tonight but having the next game back at home, that is where we are comfortable,” he said.
“We are in front of our home fans, we are at the Staples Center, we are on good ice. I’m looking forward to it.”
The Blueshirts did at least give themselves a shot when they finally got some breaks to go their way after losing the first two games in overtime despite leading each by two goals.
They outshot the Kings by a ratio of 2-1 in Game Three on Monday but still lost 3-0 with one goal coming off a wicked deflection, but their fortunes took a change for the better on Wednesday.
This time, the Kings outshot the Rangers 41-19, including 15-1 in a tense final period, and twice got the puck past Lundqvist only to see it stop right on the red line before being swiped to safety by defenseman.
“I’ve been in the game a long time to know that sometimes the hockey gods are there,” Vigneault said. “They were there tonight.”
New York’s opening goal came off a deflection when John Moore rifled a shot from near the blue line that was redirected by the edge of Pouliot’s raised stick, giving Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick no real chance of stopping it.
The Kings almost tied the game when Alec Martinez got the puck past Lundqvist only to see it stop on the line before defenseman Anton Stralman knocked it away.
“We had a little puck luck tonight but you take those,” said St. Louis. “We didn’t play a perfect game but we found a way…and we got rewarded with our first win.”
The Rangers doubled their lead in the second period when St. Louis stuffed in a rebound but the Kings struck back two minutes later when Dustin Brown picked up a loose puck and pulled a nifty deke on Lundqvist.
The Kings, who won each of their first three rounds in seven games, showed why they remain the most difficult team in the NHL to finish off as they launched wave after wave of attack.
The tension escalated in the final period when the puck slid past Lundqvist and on to the line again before a sprawling Derek Stepan tapped it back into his team mate’s pads to avert the danger after another goal mouth scramble.
“It was a good hockey game. I thought both teams played really well,” said LA coach Darryl Sutter.
“We had a lot of good opportunities, but you’ve got to finish a couple of them.”
(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Frank Pingue)