LOS ANGELES – Mr. Game 7 delivered in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
Justin Williams scored 4:36 into overtime as the Los Angeles Kings rallied to edge the New York Rangers 3-2 in the opening game of the NHL championship series Wednesday night.
The winning goal came on a cruel bounce, a sudden end to an evening that had started with so much promise for the underdog Rangers.
Dan Girardi fanned on a clearing attempt and the puck ended up at the blue-line with Mike Richards, who found Williams alone in front. Williams, who is 7-0 on the Game 7 stage with seven goals and 14 points, scored high to the stick side to complete a Kings comeback from 2-0 down.
It was his first career playoff overtime goal.
“I’ve said this many times, Justin is the most underrated player on our team by a mile,” said Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, who had a roller-coaster night. “He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does.
“There’s two guys on this team that I want to give the puck to and that’s him and Kopie (Anze Kopitar). When they have the puck, plays happen.”
Added coach Darryl Sutter: “Our best right-winger every night consistently.”
Williams’ eighth goal of the playoffs marked the third straight year that Game 1 of the final has gone to OT.
Game 2 goes Saturday at the Staples Center with advantage Los Angeles.
Teams winning Game 1 have gone on to claim the Cup 77 per cent of the time (57-of-74 series) since the final went to a best-of-seven format in 1939.
Benoit Pouliot and Carl Hagelin scored for the Rangers before a crowd of 18,399, the Kings’ 118th straight sellout.
Kyle Clifford and Doughty also scored for Los Angeles, which trailed 2-0 after 15 minutes.
“It’s a great result for us definitely but we have a lot of things to clean up,” said Williams, who has nine points (three goals, six assists) in the last seven games. “Certainly not our best game by any standards especially ours. But we were able to get it done and that’s the most important thing.”
“We’ve got a lot to clean up but (we are) happy with the win,” said Doughty.
After going down early, the Kings tied it up at 2-2 in the second period and then came on like a freight train —outshooting New York 20-3 in the final period. The Rangers held on and then threatened late in a wild ending to regulation time.
“I liked the way we played in the first two periods,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “I thought it was a hard-fought first 40 minutes by both teams.
“Not quite sure what happened there in the third.”
New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the Kings’ Jonathan Quick both lived up to their reputations on the night, with Quick busy early and Lundqvist late in an entertaining end-to-end game.
“He was the reason why we went to overtime,” Vigneault said of Lundqvist. “I mean, he gave us a chance. When you get to overtime, a lot of times it’s a bounce, it’s a shot. Tonight they got it.”
“Our best player tonight,” Sutter said of Quick.
The Rangers managed 25 shots in regulation time. The shots were 2-2 in OT.
“Quick didn’t have many saves in the third period, but he had some Grade-A ones,” said Williams.
The Kings registered 13 straight shots in the third before the Rangers finally forced Quick into action 11 minutes 58 seconds into the period.
The Kings weren’t good early on. New York, which had been off since disposing of Montreal last Thursday, came out buzzing.
The speedy Rangers played with a purpose after the puck dropped. It was like little brother taking it to big brother — they scored some knockdowns but eventually the bigger Kings began to claw back control.
The Kings, who edged the Blackhawks in overtime Sunday in Chicago to win the Western Conference crown, finished with 45 hits to the Rangers’ 33.
“They come at you hard,” said Vigneault. “When you make a play, you got to be willing to take the hit to make the play. That’s something we knew coming into the series.
“I thought for 40 minutes we handled it real well. Not quite sure what happened in the third there.”
New York — the best road team in the East this season with 25 wins — had two good scoring chances in the first three minutes. Quick had to poke-check Chris Kreider to end one threat and then stopped Hagelin from in front after a giveaway.
It was an entertaining start, albeit a sloppy one. Quick was a busy man as the Rangers probed for an opening.
New York went ahead at 13:21 when Doughty tried to be cute at the New York blue-line, attempting to drag the puck past an onrushing Ranger and lost possession. Things went from bad to worse when defence partner Jake Muzzin fell down and Pouliot scored to the stick side on the ensuing breakaway.
The Rangers made it 2-0 the penalty kill at 15:03 as the Roadrunner-like Hagelin outraced Slava Voynov and headed to goal. Quick made the save but the puck bounced in off Voynov’s skate for Hagelin’s seventh of the playoffs.
While the bounce was unfortunate, it was the Rangers’ second scoring chance on the penalty.
Hagelin, who also scored on the penalty kill against Montreal, is the sixth player in Rangers history to record more than one short-handed goal in one playoff year and the first since Mark Messier scored two in 1992.
Los Angeles pulled one back at 17:33 on a good forecheck. Derek Stepan failed to clear the puck, turning it over and the Kings crashed the net, with Clifford jamming it in top shelf to revive the Staples Center crowd.
It was Clifford’s first post-season goal since April 23, 2011, snapping a 37-game playoff drought.
The Kings outshot the Rangers 14-13 in a first period that belonged to the visitors.
Doughty made up for his earlier turnover with a sweet goal that featured almost the same move that tripped him up before. Taking a nifty Williams backhand pass, a trailing Doughty toe-dragged the puck between his legs to evade Derek Dorsett and then snapped a shot through Lundqvist’s legs for his fifth of the playoffs at 6:36.
While Doughty put on the brakes to score from in close, two Rangers and two Kings jostled on the other side of Lundqvist. It was Doughty’s 17th point of the post-season, breaking the club record for a defenceman he set two years ago. Clifford made a fine pass to trigger the attack.
On the bench, rugged Kings defenceman Matt Greene got treatment for a nasty gash by his left eye that looked like someone had taken a box-cutter to him.
The game was getting nasty with Doughty complaining bitterly he had been butt-ended. Later in the game, he got a penalty for embellishment.
The shots were 22-21 for the Rangers after 40 minutes.
Both teams have travelled marathon journeys to get here. The Kings played 21 games, a league-record maximum, while the Rangers saw action in 20.
The record for most playoff games in a single season is 26, set by the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers and 2004 Calgary Flames. The most by a Cup winner is 25, by the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2011 Boston Bruins.
Los Angeles finished 10th overall in the league during the regular season with 100 points, four ahead of No. 12 New York.
The Kings are looking to win their second Cup in three seasons while the Rangers are after their first championship in 20 years.
It was the Kings’ first playoff OT win at home since May 6, 2001, against Colorado.
NOTES: Celebs at the game included Will Ferrell, Kate Bosworth, Jon Hamm, Ellen Page, Jim Carrey, Matthew Perry, Steve Carell, David Boreanaz, Kevin Connolly, Larry David, Catherine Keener, Spike Jonze, and Flea and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
© The Canadian Press, 2014