Series already tilted in Kings' favor

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LOS ANGELES -- This is what a squandered chance looks like.

It's a puck bouncing over Dan Girardi's stick early in overtime and then being flung blindly up the ice, where it's picked off by Mike Richards and sent in front of the net to a wide-open Justin Williams, who, as you know if you've watched a playoff hockey game of any import in the past seven or eight years, simply never misses.

And that was it for the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.

A game in which a 2-0 lead early became a 3-2 overtime loss and another notch in the belt of a Los Angeles Kings team that fears no deficit and seemingly never blinks.

What remains to be seen is what this will cost the Rangers, given that the prevailing thought is this was a game they very much needed to win if they are to prevail over a heavily favored Kings team.

"This playoff, it seems like there's never, like, a comfortable lead," Rangers forward Martin St. Louis said. "You've just got to keep pushing and do the things that make you successful. We did a lot of those tonight, but, you know, that's a good hockey team on the other side. They're going to force you to make mistakes. ... For us, it's one game. We'll correct the mistakes and get right back at it."

The Kings were coming off one of the most emotional series in recent memory, a seven-game heavyweight bout with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks that ended Sunday night in Chicago on Alec Martinez's overtime winner. It was the Kings' third straight seven-game set and the third time they'd prevailed in a deciding game on the road.

The Rangers, meanwhile, had dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in six games and were well rested coming into Wednesday's series opener.

The dominoes had aligned for the underdog Rangers to make an immediate impact in the series. Steal Game 1, and perhaps they could plant a small seed of doubt in the unshakeable Kings psyche. Steal Game 1, and maybe they could crystallize the belief in the Rangers' dressing room that they are the Kings' equals and not some patsy from the East.

The Rangers started Game 1 as though those things would indeed come to pass.

Benoit Pouliot and Carl Hagelin (on a brilliant, short-handed effort) scored less than two minutes apart in the middle of the first period to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead.

The Rangers looked faster. The Kings looked like they might be struggling to find their emotional comfort zone.

"We still didn't have great legs out there," Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell said. "I think maybe the trainers put gumboots in our stalls instead of skates today."

Not so for the opponents.

"I think they had a lot of energy and were fresh," Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said of the Rangers. "If you look at their playoffs, they've had really good first periods every game. Now I think -- I know -- that we were not on full tanks."

Who knows how this turns out if the Rangers manage to get out of the first period with that 2-0 lead in tact?

It didn't play out that way.

With less than three minutes left in the first period, Anton Stralman couldn't clear a loose puck in the Rangers' zone, and Jeff Carter -- one of the best Kings on the ice all night -- managed to get the puck to Kyle Clifford in front. Clifford scored his first goal of the playoffs to make it 2-1 and change the complexion of the game.

Drew Doughty, who'd been stripped of the puck on the Pouliot goal, danced in on the left side to tie the game early in the second period. The rest of regulation remained scoreless, despite a frenetic final minute that saw both Hagelin and Carter trade glorious scoring chances, and the Kings owned the ice.

"When you play against such a good opponent that has all that strength, you need to play a full game," Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said. "For whatever reason, tonight we just weren't good enough in the third."

Why did it happen that way?

Vigneault admitted he wasn't exactly sure.

The Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks or San Jose Sharks, who somehow managed to lose four straight to the Kings in the first round after building a 3-0 series lead, might be able to help explain what happened: The Kings happened.

The Kings out-hit the Rangers 45-33. Rangers defenseman Marc Staal admitted his squad wasn't used to the heaviness of the Kings' forecheck.

"I think the last half of the second and third, we took a couple of penalties, and then you're kind of caught on your heels defending a lot more than you want to," Staal said. "They were able to get their forecheck going. We spent a lot more time in our end zone than we're used to. We're not used to defending that much. Somehow we just couldn't grab a hold and get it back going our way."

When a team loses a Game 1 in overtime, it seems perhaps unfair to suggest that it might be devastating, especially to a team such as the Rangers, who trailed Pittsburgh 3-1 in the second round and won three straight to get to the Eastern Conference finals.

But this Kings team is different from any of the Rangers' opponents. These Kings players knew they weren't close to being where they can be and have been for much of this playoff spring.

"We found a way to win," said Mike Richards, who delivered the game-winning assist. "But I think everybody wants to forget about this game. Even though we got the win, it's not the poster way to win hockey games in the playoffs. They're a good team, they played us hard, but we have to be better."

Despite the closeness of the game and the early hour of the series itself, it's hard not to feel that as Girardi made that desperate pass into enemy hands, with his teammates already clearing the zone in anticipation of a clean clear, this finals had already taken on a mighty tilt.

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