LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings only needed one last win to scratch a 45-year-old itch.
With a victory in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, a long-struggling franchise would have matched the most dominant playoff run in NHL history. The largest crowd in their history could have watched the Kings raise the Cup for the very first time in an arena packed with past Kings heroes, Hollywood celebrities and faithful fans waiting since 1967 for this one cathartic moment.
Yep, the New Jersey Devils crashed quite a party Wednesday night.
Adam Henrique scored the tiebreaking goal with 4:29 to play, Martin Brodeur made 21 saves, and New Jersey beat the Kings 3-1 to avoid a sweep in the finals.
The Devils have never been swept in a best-of-seven series, managing at least one victory 43 times. They weren’t going out that way at Staples Center, not even with every force in Los Angeles seemingly stacked against them.
The NHL unpacked the Stanley Cup deep inside the arena before the third period, but it never saw the ice.
“We’re pretty happy to live another day, there’s no doubt about that,” Brodeur said. “We just wanted to play well, give everything we had, and see where that’s going to bring us.”
It’s bringing them back to Newark for Game 5 on Saturday night.
After making a series of stunning saves in a performance that evoked his greatest moments, Brodeur said he believes in the Devils’ comeback chances “more than yesterday.”
“You know, I think we wanted to make them jump on a plane and come to New Jersey,” said Brodeur, who stopped Simon Gagne and Trevor Lewis on his two biggest saves. “We had to go anyway. Might as well get a game over there.”
Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk also scored third-period goals for the Eastern Conference champion Devils, who prevented Los Angeles from equaling Edmonton’s 16-2 run through the 1988 postseason — back in the days of a 21-team league, and with five future Hall of Famers on the Oilers’ roster.
“We stayed alive,” said Elias, who has two of the Devils’ five goals in the series. “Marty had to work hard, but he gave us a chance. All we’ve got to do is keep playing hard.”
The Devils felt they should have ended that run earlier in this series, but got no breaks in the first three games. They got a big break of their own creation in the third period of Game 4.
A few minutes after Drew Doughty tied it for the Kings, Henrique scored his third enormous goal of the postseason, taking a pass from David Clarkson and rocketing a wrist shot past Jonathan Quick, the Kings’ nearly unbeatable goalie.
The Calder Trophy finalist ended two of the Devils’ first three playoff series with overtime goals, and he kept New Jersey alive with his latest.
“It’s fun. This is where every kid dreams of playing one day,” Henrique said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task to come back, (but) there’s no quit in the group in here. We know we can do it. We know we can put four together and come back.”
Quick stopped 21 shots for the Kings, but lost his streak of nearly 139 shutout minutes right when he probably could have wrapped up the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The Kings had allowed just one third-period goal in their previous nine games.
Kovalchuk added an empty-netter that sent fans streaming forlornly out into a warm Southern California evening.
With a golden chance for a Hockeywood ending, Los Angeles dropped to 15-3 in its spectacular postseason run, failing to win the title on its first try — and in its 200th playoff game, no less — in front of the faithful fans who have never seen the Stanley Cup.
The Kings should head to New Jersey with confidence: They have won all 10 of their road playoff games this spring and 12 straight overall — both NHL postseason records. But after never trailing in the Stanley Cup finals, the Kings never led in Game 4.
“I think (wrapping it up) was definitely on our minds, but they found a way to get a late goal,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “We’ve just got to hit the reset button. We’ve been in this situation now four times in the playoffs, and we’ve always come back with a big rebound game.”
Los Angeles set an NHL record by taking a 3-0 lead in all four of its playoff series, but failed three times to close out its opponents in Game 4. Vancouver and Phoenix also won Game 4 before losing Game 5.
The Devils became just the sixth of 26 teams in finals history to force a Game 5 after falling behind 0-3. Only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs ever rallied with four straight wins in the finals, and only three teams in NHL history have done it in any playoff round.
“I think the last three games could have gone our way as easily as they’ve gone L.A.’s way,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “We finally got rewarded tonight.”
After a tight-checking game between two very tight teams, Elias’ rebound goal with 12:04 to play put a hush over Staples Center. But 62 seconds later —and six seconds after Clarkson went off with a questionable boarding penalty — Mike Richards passed Anze Kopitar’s faceoff win to Doughty, who rocketed a long shot past Brodeur for the fourth goal of his breakthrough postseason.
But after so many minutes of tight defense, New Jersey won it with a stunning goal in transition: Former Kings forward Alexei Ponikarovsky got the puck to Clarkson, who found Henrique across the ice for his first goal since ending the Eastern Conference finals with an overtime goal.
“That’s probably the best feeling I’ve ever had in my whole career,” Clarkson said. “I saw (Henrique) coming, so I got it to him, and the shot was incredible.”
The Kings opened their first Stanley Cup finals in 19 years with two tense overtime victories in New Jersey, surviving largely on the brilliance of Quick. Los Angeles then returned home and routed the Devils 4-0 in Game 3 on Monday night, setting the stage for a celebration.
But the Devils got into the details, and the Kings must regroup.
“We couldn’t score,” Kopitar said. “We had a couple of chances, and we didn’t bear down. We didn’t get a couple of bounces in, and you have to create your own bounces. They played with a little more desperation than we did, and we have to correct that in Game 5.”
NOTES: The Devils changed their lineup for Game 4, inserting Petr Sykora into his sixth Stanley Cup finals along with D Henrik Tallinder, who had been out since January with a blood clot. Sykora, a healthy scratch since Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, replaced Jacob Josefson, while Tallinder took the spot of former Kings D Peter Harrold. Sykora played more than 12 minutes, and Tallinder logged nearly 20. … Gagne played his second straight game after returning to the lineup for Game 3. He had been out since Dec. 26 with a concussion. … Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Jeremy Renner, Vince Vaughn, Martin Short, Matthew Perry and Alyssa Milano attended the game. Wayne Gretzky and Teemu Selanne also were in the building. Selanne’s Anaheim Ducks won the Cup exactly five years ago Wednesday — and they’re still the last team to raise the Cup on home ice.