NEW YORK — The puck sat there, suspended. It had collected bits of snow on its way past Henrik Lundqvist, gradually slowing as a pile built behind it. And so it sat there, with 1:11 to go in the game, centimeters from celebration for one team, devastation for the other.
Then center Derek Stepan swooped in, using the side of his glove to get the puck (and his team) out of danger.
Lundqvist had been everywhere in his crease, moving constantly, shifting to make saves, carrying his team. He needed to make 40 saves, 14 in the second and 15 in the third, creating the snow pile that made the difference.
Because that snow — and, of course, the otherworldly play of Lundqvist — meant that the Rangers and Kings would be headed back to Los Angeles for Game 5 after a 2-1 New York victory in a series that seemed all but over.
Not quite yet.
Faced with a barrage — more, really — of shots by the Kings, Lundqvist was the best player on the ice. He did all that was asked of him, saving his teammates amid a performance not nearly good enough to beat the Kings. Lundqvist, though, was good enough.
“Don’t fool yourself, either,” Stepan said. “Hank stood on his head. He made some big saves at big times for us. Those are the big plays we need at certain moments to keep the momentum or shift the momentum. Hank stood tall and he’s a big part of why we’re going back to LA.
“He just competes. That’s one thing I’ve learned about Hank, that he never seems to stop competing. He loves to win and he hates to lose.”
As Lundqvist said, “We didn’t want to see the Cup coming out on our home ice tonight. Just the thought of it makes me feel sick.”
But even Lundqvist needed a couple of assists from his teammates. In addition to the Stepan save, defenseman Anton Stralman provided one of his own, at 11:50 of the first period.
Jeff Carter’s blade hovered near the puck, as it sat on the goal line. But Carter didn’t touch it, didn’t try to push it into the goal. It was, instead, Stralman who pulled the puck out and away from danger, preventing a game-tying goal.
“I just saw the puck and all I tried to do basically was get the stick out, and obviously the puck as well,” Stralman said. “I got a little lucky and was able to save it.”
It would have been a 1-1 game, but the Rangers kept their lead heading into the first intermission.
“A lot of times you start panicking and you end up whacking it in your own net, and we did a good job of being calm when it was sitting there, and getting it back underneath Hank for a whistle,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “If they get that [first] one, they have that momentum, and we were able to make a stand long enough that they didn’t. And when they got some chances, Hank was there to make some big saves. He’s big-time.”
Lundqvist had not seemed to be playing up to his usual standards in the earlier part of the series, allowing 11 goals in the first three games. That was not an issue on Wednesday night. The only blemish on Lundqvist’s night was a breakaway goal by Dustin Brown at 8:46 of the second.
But that was more about what Dan Girardi (and Brown) did than Lundqvist.
The play started when Girardi broke his stick at the offensive blue line, and Brown was off. He deked — backhand-to-forehand-to-backhand-to-forehand about six times — on Lundqvist, cutting the lead to one.
“I’m not going to lie,” Lundqvist said. “The first thought was, here we go again.”
That was all they would get.
New York had gotten its first goal at 7:25 of the first, when Benoit Pouliot deflected a shot by John Moore past Jonathan Quick. Two seconds after a New York power play — on a Willie Mitchell high stick — ended, Pouliot came across the crease and lifted his blade. The puck touched it and went into the net.
The Rangers doubled their lead at 6:27 of the second period, as Martin St. Louis tipped in a puck that had come loose after he and Chris Kreider crashed the net.
New York was up, 2-0, the third time that had happened in the series. The two previous times — in Games 1 and 2 — the Kings came back to win both games in overtime in Los Angeles.
But this game was at Madison Square Garden and there was the prospect of elimination.
This game had the bounces for New York, the luck for New York. Plus, New York had Lundqvist.
“I’ve been in the game a long time to know that sometimes the hockey gods are there,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “They were there tonight.”
And, as he added, “Thank God for soft ice now and then.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.