The puck squirted to the New York Rangers' goal line and halted dead in its vulcanized rubber tracks. Just stopped. Refused to move. Sat there alone and untouched. A shiny black hood ornament. A frozen omen.
Twice during big moments of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night, the only thing in giant Madison Square Garden that wasn't shaking or skating or screaming was a very rebellious three-inch puck.
How does it not move? How do the Kings not make it move? Both times, one nudge or swat or even a puff could have turned that puck into a Kings goal that could have given them a championship. But both times, the desperate Rangers found it, swatted it, saved it and their season.
The puck stopped here, and so did the Kings' first shot at kissing the Stanley Cup in a 2-1 loss that shortened their series lead to three games to one in a result that could be described as bittersweet. Or is that sweet-bitter?
Admit it, all you nuttily passionate Kings fans back in Los Angeles. Some deep part of you is not all that sorry that this series will move back to Staples Center on Friday for Game 5 and give you a chance to celebrate the sports world's most special trophy presentation with your heroes. You want to see and experience the Cup, and this loss by the Kings gives you that chance.
Just don't ask the Kings if they agree. They don't. They'll never. They love their fans, they would rather clinch the Cup at home, but having come back from a three-games-to-none deficit just six weeks ago, they know the danger of letting the Rangers breathe.
Long after the immovable pucks were packed away Wednesday night, the Kings' blood was still racing.
"It sucks, we should have put those in the net, they were just laying right out there for us," said Drew Doughty. "Two of them like that, that's the difference in the game."
The first frozen nightmare occurred midway through the first period, with the Kings trailing 1-0 and needing a jolt. During a scrum in front of the net, the puck somehow slipped under Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and sat motionless on the goal line for an instant that seemed like an eternity. Jeff Carter stretched around Lundqvist and attempted to knock it in, but whiffed. The Rangers' Anton Stralman then somehow poked it out of the goal for one of the two biggest saves of the game.
"I got a little lucky and was able to save it," said Stralman.
Luck? The Kings aren't buying that idea. They haven't bought it once during this amazing postseason, which is probably why they are still skating. They blamed themselves for not fighting their way into making that puck move.
"We need to make it harder on them," growled Dustin Brown. "We could be harder, it's about physicality. I'm talking about puck battles and stick battles in front of the net."
In the final two minutes of the game, the puck stopped again, this time after a Tanner Pearson deflection skittered behind Lundqvist. This time, believe it or not, it was slowed to a stop by accumulated slush. With most of the hockey world thinking the Rangers didn't have a snowball's chance in June to win this series, well, they just won with a snowball in June.
This time, with Carter and Anze Kopitar unable to get to the puck, Derek Stepan was the Rangers' hero, smartly and carefully reaching around with an open glove and knocking it out. If he had actually grabbed it, the Kings would have been given a penalty shot.
"I've been in the game a long time to know that sometimes the hockey gods are there," said Rangers Coach Alain Vigneault. "They were there tonight."
Hockey gods? The Kings aren't buying that either. Even after a game in which they outshot the Rangers 41-19 — including 15-1 in the third period — they criticized themselves for worshiping false effort.
"We just have to get hungrier around them," said Doughty. "To get pucks by this goalie and this team, you have to be hungrier than them and more determined than we were tonight."
While many fans in Los Angeles surely walked away from this game excitedly making plans for what will be a rollicking Game 5, the Kings literally ran from this game as if it could be contagious.
As Kings family members were being ushered through the Madison Square Garden tunnel — they had been flown in from Los Angeles just for this game and its possible celebration — Coach Darryl Sutter hurried into the interview actually carrying his suitcase.
"Gotta go," he said, tapping his hands on the table in front of him as he basically dared someone to ask him a question.
He was asked five questions. The entire session required 1 minute 44 seconds. His most biting answer came when someone implied — and you knew someone would — that there was consolation in returning to Los Angeles to have a chance to win the Cup in front of Kings fans.
"We were trying to win tonight," he said. "I don't think you look any further than that."
It was a night when they weren't looking any further than the three inches that could have given them a Stanley Cup championship.
The puck died. The Rangers live.