NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers waited 20 years to bring the Stanley Cup finals back to Madison Square Garden. And then -- with Mark Messier, the hero of their 1994 run, looking on Monday -- they went out and lost Game 3, and almost surely this series, in the 20 minutes it took them to stagger through a hope-smothering second period that will go down as the capsulized version of why the Los Angeles Kings are now just one win from sweeping this series come Wednesday.
The Rangers were not just outplayed. Afterward Monday, they also talked like a team that feels as if it has just plain run out of luck, even if deep down they know that's just a loser's lament.
"I'm just laying down and the puck got passed over, and it nicks off the heel of my [skate] blade," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi muttered about the Kings' first goal, which blew by Henrik Lundqvist with just .5 of a second left in the first period.
And that was just the first dispiriting blow the Rangers had to take.
The Rangers needed to roar out and summon their best period of the series after that -- and instead they went out and played one of their worst in the second.
The Rangers couldn't stay out of the penalty box, committing back-to-back penalties within the first 3½ minutes -- the second of them resulting in another deflection goal, this time by the Kings' Jake Muzzin. And the Rangers couldn't make the Kings pay for giving them four power-play chances by then, either. But they did see another goal flutter by Lundqvist, this time when defenseman Ryan McDonagh slapped the puck away from Mike Richards only to see it land right back on Richards' stick before he slapped it in for a three-goal lead.
"Not a bad first [period], not a bad second -- and you're down by three," Rangers veteran Brad Richards added. "It's hard to figure sometimes."
The way Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick was playing, the three-goal lead that L.A. took into the third felt like 50-0.
And then, as if Quick wasn't doing enough on his way to turning aside all 32 shots he faced, he gave Rangers forward Rick Nash a rough little face wash with his glove hand for crashing into him with 56.2 seconds left in the second period.
Then he stoned the Rangers' Chris Kreider on a breakaway just seconds into the third.
By then, the Garden had grown eerily silent for long stretches. The Kings had rendered moot all that talk about how odd it was that they hadn't led a moment in their first two wins, which were decided in overtime and double overtime.
In Game 3, they still didn't play anything close to a perfect game. And yet it was still impossible not to come away from this game thinking the Kings are just the better team. Period. End of story.
"It's frustrating," Nash said.
"A couple bad bounces," Girardi said.
But it was more than that. The Rangers just flat-out missed burying wide-open scoring chances, even when Quick wasn't feeding the talk that he, not Lundqvist, is the best goaltender in the league. And although it's true the Rangers are losing because somehow, someway, they desperately needed Lundqvist to be the difference in this series, that's not the only reason they lost Monday. For the first time in this series, all of the Rangers' top players -- from McDonagh to Girardi, from Lundqvist to Marc Staal to Martin St. Louis to Nash -- were outplayed. The Kings finally raised their level -- and the Rangers couldn't keep up, which was another hard truth about this game.
Afterward, at least Rangers coach Alain Vigneault didn't give much credence to the muttering coming out of his locker room about bad luck.
"This is a performance business," Vigneault quietly said. "They got the puck past a pretty good goaltender. And we couldn't."
They'll all be back at the Garden on Wednesday to try again, as the Rangers look to rally, the same as they did after falling behind 3-1 against Pittsburgh. That's the slim hope the Rangers will carry into Game 4.
"It's not over yet," McDonagh insisted.
It just feels that way.