After feeling satisfied about his team's play in three losses to open the Stanley Cup final, New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault could easily empathize with the Los Angeles Kings when the roles were reversed in Game 4.
"It was a real tough game, I think, for L.A," Vigneault said. "It was probably their best game of the playoffs that they've played against us."
And it was a loss, as the Kings failed to finish off the sweep thanks to 40 saves by Henrik Lundqvist, one by Anton Stralman and one by a combination of snow built up in the crease and Derek Stepan. That the Rangers needed so much luck and strong goaltending only underscored just how dominant Los Angeles was.
Just don't tell the results-oriented Kings that. Even after players talked after wins about needing to play better, the self-criticism was turned up despite outshooting the Rangers 41-19.
"At the end of the day, we weren't good enough to win," captain Dustin Brown said. "It's about finding a way to be better."
The chance to do that comes in Friday's Game 5 back at Staples Center in Los Angeles with the Kings still in command of the series and the Cup waiting nearby.
After Game 4 at Madison Square Garden, it didn't feel as though the Kings were on the cusp of the title, like it did after they went up three games to none. All around the visiting locker-room there was talk about what areas needed to be better, from start to finish.
"We still probably could play better for a full game," fourth-line centre Mike Richards said. "It took us a little bit to get into it again for whatever reason."
A turnover off the opening faceoff by leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidate Drew Doughty was an inauspicious start, but the Kings still had the lion's share of chances.
No time was that more evident than in the third period, when the Kings shelled Lundqvist to the tune of 15 shots to New York's one, which didn't come until almost 13 minutes had elapsed. The puck was close to going in, but it didn't.
"We had some good chances in the third," Brown said. "We have to put ourselves in better situations."
While the Kings gave Lundqvist his due for stonewalling them, they put the onus on themselves to get better scoring chances moving forward in the series. Quality, not quantity.
"I think we can do a better job getting to him," centre Anze Kopitar said. "I think (there) a couple of times where we didn't make it tough on him. The pucks were sitting there. But the pucks he's going to see, he's going to stop. That's just how it is."
Twice, when Stralman knocked the puck off the goal-line in the first and when Stepan swept it off with 71 seconds left in the third, Lundqvist didn't see the puck until it was almost too late. Alec Martinez could've had a goal and then an assist on a shot deflected by Tanner Pearson, but that wasn't how things went for the Kings on Wednesday night.
Doughty even called both goals against "pretty bad bounces." And while luck has appeared to define this series, the Kings aren't on the verge of a second championship in three years because they rely on good fortune.
"If we clean up our play, you make your own bounces at this time of year," Brown said. "We had chances that we didn't put in the back of the net."
Having reached the final by coming back from a 3-0 series deficit against the San Jose Sharks and needing seven games in the other two series, the Kings know what to expect energy-wise from the Rangers on Friday night. That's a big help.
But an even bigger help would be fixing any holes that have kept the Kings from polishing things off.
"We could still do some better things for a more consistent period of time," Richards said. "We'll look at it. Watch some video and correct a couple of things and put our best foot forward."
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