If the New York Rangers were going to extend the Stanley Cup Final, Henrik Lundqvist was going to carry the brunt of the responsibility. Facing the highest scoring team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since Wayne Gretzky was leading the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, the veteran goaltender was going to get a lot of work.
When the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the first half of the game, the inevitable pushback from the Los Angeles Kings would be as overwhelming an onslaught as Lundqvist and his club had faced previously. Looking at the end of his season and Stanley Cup dreams, Lundqvist turned in his best effort of the final round -- a 40-save, 2-1 victory, ensuring the Kings would not be raising the Stanley Cup on his ice.
When Los Angeles tied the game in the second period off a breakaway goal by Dustin Brown, however, the game looked very much in doubt. That goal seemed to turn Lundqvist's net and the Rangers' zone into a shooting gallery. The Kings outshot the Rangers 12-2 the rest of the way in the second period and continued their dominance into the third.
New York managed just one shot on goal in the third period, while the Kings poured 15 on Lundqvist's net, forcing the veteran goalie to make some big saves along with the routine ones.
Despite his brilliance, Lundqvist twice needed some serious help from the hockey gods or a teammate or both. He couldn't seem to catch a break in Game 3 as each of the Kings' goals in that contest came via deflection. Game 4 was a different story.
The biggest break came in the closing minutes of the third period when Lundqvist got a small piece of the puck after Tanner Pearson deflected a shot on net. It squeezed through the goaltender and glided towards the goal line before just stopping right ahead of it. Derek Stepan was there to sweep it away with his open glove.
Those were a pair of big breaks, but beyond that, Lundqvist was in control and took over the game. He turned in his second 40-save game of the Cup Final. For once, the Kings couldn't come back and steal one away.
When asked what the Rangers did differently to keep the lead after twice losing them in games this series, head coach Alain Vigneault addressed it rather simply.
"Goaltender was real good," he said with a wry smile.
And really, that was a big part of the difference. Lundqvist had to be special with his team trailing the series 3-0 and coming off a rather demoralizing loss in Game 3. The Rangers still may not come back in the series, but they showed the Kings that they will not go without a fight.
Los Angeles gave them all they could handle over the last half of the game, though. That made the Rangers' performance in Game 4 one of survival more than assertiveness.
The Rangers had no answer for the Kings in terms of getting the puck away from them long enough to give Lundqvist some rest. Thirty of the 41 shots Lundqvist came in the last two periods and most of those came after the Kings cut the deficit to 2-1.
It was an overwhelming stretch in which the Kings looked determined to get on the plane heavier than when they landed. Lundqvist never wavered, never so much as flinched, not even after the soft ice saved his bacon.
To have such a performance in the most dire of circumstances has to build confidence for Lundqvist and his teammates. Considering how despondent the Rangers could have allowed themselves to be, and particularly Lundqvist, after losing two close games to start the series and getting shut out in Game 3, winning Game 4 at all appears miraculous.
Miracles sure seem more possible when the guy between the pipes is on his game.
The mountain to climb remains tall for the Rangers, almost impossibly so, but New York's netminder might turn out to be a pretty good Sherpa.
"Anytime I put Henrik in goal, I know I got a chance to win," Vigneault said. "You know, he's a great goaltender. He really proved that again tonight."
He'll need to prove it yet again in Game 5 as the Rangers look to take that next step towards a comeback in Los Angeles.