NEW YORK -- Maybe at this point, the New York Rangers should just face it: Desperation suits them more than being front-runners. That has been the thread running through their wholly unpredicted postseason run to this point, through their cliffhanger, seven-game opening series against Philadelphia, their Martin St. Louis-inspired comeback from a 1-3 hole against Pittsburgh, and their dismissal of Montreal.
Then they couldn't beat this Los Angeles Kings team that swarmed into Madison Square Garden threatening to sweep them out of the Stanley Cup finals until they'd been shoved to the edge of the plank Wednesday night.
"I've never been so happy to have a long flight and a time change," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi joked after the Rangers hung on for a thrilling, occasionally frantic 2-1 win that featured some spectacular work by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and some even more spectacular good luck when the puck got by him three times, yet twice stopped dead in its tracks without crossing the red line.
"I've been in the game a long time," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said with weary look after Rangers were outshot 41-19 and still won the game. "I know sometimes the hockey gods are there.
"They were there tonight."
Still, the Rangers weren't just lucky -- they played gritty, relentless, even occasionally chippy hockey. They were very good when they needed to be. And they refused to allow any demons to creep back into their heads after leaping out to a 2-0 lead only to see Kings winger Dustin Brown make their heart skip a beat when Girardi's stick broke. Brown pounced on the loose puck, then came flying in on a breakaway and stick handled from his backhand to his forehand a head-snapping six times before beating a sprawling Lundqvist low on his glove side.
The Kings were on fire after that. The chance to sip from the Cup for the second time in three years was almost within their reach. Both sides had to be thinking of the Rangers' first two losses in this series in which they also leaped out to hope-spiking two-goal leads only to lose both times.
This time, the Rangers didn't snap. They gouged out some breaks for themselves instead. And it started when Quick, who had stoned them for 53 straight shots and over 123 consecutive minutes of play, finally gave up a goal 7:25 into the first period when Benoit Pouliot deflected in John Moore's slap shot from the blue line. When the red light went on, it was as if an electric jolt when through the Rangers.
It went in? It went in!
Then their net-crashing was rewarded again when Stepan took a drop pass from St. Louis and fired a shot that Chris Kreider got a piece of as he drove toward Quick. The puck deflected to St. Louis by the left post, and unlike earlier in the series, he didn't miss. He lifted the puck into the far side of the net, by Quick, for what turned out to be the winning goal.
There was still a fat 30½ minutes to play. But on this night, the Rangers absorbed every rush and scare that the Kings threw at them. And there were a lot.
And twice, Lundqvist's defense saved him for a change. With the Rangers still clinging to that one-goal lead, Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman outwrestled a flailing Carter to a puck that had slithered through Lundqvist's pads and was now moving an agonizingly slow path toward the goal line as the crowd shrieked.
But Strahlman swept it away as just a corner of the puck began to nick the red line.
Then, with just 1:11 to play, almost the exact same thing happened again: Another puck came crawling out behind Lundqvist as bodies were flying all around him in the crease. But this time it was Stepan -- who is playing with a broken jaw, remember -- who saw it, threw himself into the scrum and was smart enough to swipe the puck away rather than cover it with his glove in the crease, which would've been trouble.
"I was just trying to do whatever I could to stop it," Stepan said.
"I was by the post with [the Kings' Anze] Kopitar, and I was just holding my breath there -- the puck was kind of spinning and staying by the line," Girardi added.
"Thank god for soft ice now and then," Vigneault said with a smile.
Game 5 will be back in Los Angeles. If nothing else, the Rangers vindicated all their talk that they felt right there, neck and neck with the favored Kings in this series, even if the results didn't say so. They'd been outspoken about how they thought they'd outplayed the Kings and still lost Game 1 in overtime, and then lost Game 2 in a double-overtime killer.
And yet, as dispiriting as both those outcomes were, being shut out by Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick in their 3-0 Game 3 seemed to take even more out of them.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Rangers veteran Brad Richards said the morning after. "It's pretty much impossible to be upbeat."
But the Rangers came out Wednesday and found a way. Once the puck dropped for Game 4 it seemed as if all that was eating at them metastasized into an even higher level of, what? Determination? Anger?
That's the word.
"We have to be able to look ourselves in the mirror," Richards told the New York Post before the game.
"We don't want to end our season losing a game at home and give the Stanley Cup to their team," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal added. "It's not going to happen that way."
And they're not done yet.
"The stress level is a little high, obviously," St. Louis admitted.
"Now we have a desperate team coming into our building," the Kings' Kopitar said.
The Rangers might want to keep it that way.