Here we go, one spectacular postseason has led to this series; East vs. West, Rangers vs. Kings, Los Angeles vs. New York and the Stanley Cup Final.
Like the two cities themselves, this is a series featuring two teams with some contrasts but even more similarities. Both the Kings and Rangers have strengths in their ability to possess and both are much more of defense-first teams but how they achieve that all is slightly different.
The Rangers are not a big team and they don't love to get wrapped up in the physical game, they prefer to let their speed to the damage. However the Kings have never found a tough-nosed hockey series they didn't like. It's sort of the opposite of the stereotypes you have of each city -- New York being the loud, tough city, LA being more passive and peaceful -- but it's the recipe each team has concocted to get to this point.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between these two teams is how they have gotten here. Each team has faced a remarkable amount of adversity in this postseason. There has been a lot of talk about the Kings possibly being fatigued after playing seven very tough games against Chicago in the Western Conference finals and having needed all 21 games to get to the Final but lest we forget the Rangers needed 20 of the 21 possible games.
You probably remember at the end of the first round and beginning of the second the Rangers played five games in seven days and they survived. At this time of the year fatigue shouldn't matter much, there is a whole offseason to recoup starting in two weeks or less. Point is, it shouldn't be a factor one way or the other in this series, both teams have played a lot of hockey to get here, more than we've ever seen from a Final pairing. No team should be any fresher than the other, leaving it to come down to just the hockey.
The funny thing is it's hard to see either team ever actually losing this series given how well both have been when facing elimination. The Kings are a perfect (of course) 7-0 including three Game 7 wins on the road while the Rangers are 4-0, giving up just four goals in those games. The resiliency showed by each team has been a sight to behold but clearly one has to break in this series.
As victors of the West, the Kings are the favorites coming in, rather heavy favorites at that. A contributing factor is that the Kings will actually have home-ice advantage, something they are not used to at all. The Kings have played the first three rounds as the road team and played all of them without home-ice in 2012 when they cruised to the Cup. They've been tough to beat at Staples Center but certainly not invincible. Winning at least one game in LA is something the Rangers obviously have to do. They did it once way back in October but at this point that means nothing.
For the Rangers the goal is that first title since 1994, just their second in a 74-year span. The Kings, having broken the seal with their first championship two years ago, want to start making headway on a dynastic run. Both obviously begin with winning the Stanley Cup.
LA Offense vs. NYR Defense
The view of how this battle shapes has is dramatically different now than it would have been at the beginning of the postseason because similar to how they did in 2012's Stanley Cup run, the Kings' offense has gone from sleepy to a nightmare.
In the regular season LA's offense was missing, or at least it appears that way given what they've found in the playoffs. Despite being the best puck-possession team in the league, the Kings finished 26th in the NHL in scoring with 2.42 goals per game even though they were seventh in shots on goal. In the playoffs, though, they have been the highest-scoring team and it's not even all that close as they are just about averaging 3.5 goals per game, a gigantic jump that seems mostly related to a reversal of fortunes as much as anything else. How else do you explain a shooting percentage bump to 11.3 percent vs. 7.6 percent in the regular season. It's not as if they just learned how to accurate shoot.
But the biggest issue with pinning the majority of the success to a simple case of luck is that it dismisses the great offensive talent the Kings have. Just as it was in 2012, the 2014 team has found another offensive gear thanks in large part to a midseason acquisition. Marian Gaborik wasn't working out well in Columbus with his myriad injuries and didn't seem likely to re-sign so the contending Jackets traded him for almost anything and that was Dean Lombardi's and Darryl Sutter's gain. He has fit in tremendously with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, scoring more goals in the postseason (12) than he did all regular season. Naturally it helps playing with a gifted player such as Kopitar. In addition to further sparking the top line's offense, it allowed the Kings to set other lines and they've found a gem in the third line, cleverly nicknamed That 70's Line (each player has a number in the 70s, you see) of Tanner Pearson-Jeff Carter-Tyler Toffoli. If that line is paired opposite the Mats Zuccarello line, it's going to be a very interesting -- and key -- battle. And don't dismiss the blue-line help to the offense, Drew Doughty in particular has been terrific and with how well the defensemen retrieve the puck and pass it, they spur the offense along.
How the offense matches up with the Rangers' defense is rather interesting. In this Kings team you have a physical group that has come to define the term "heavy" in hockey but they are well-rounded enough that they can play just about any game you want. Both offensively and defensively, the Rangers would probably like this game to be played at a higher pace given their abundance of speed and a lack of size. It might lead to some odd-man rushes against and/or the occasional breakdown but that's why they have a certain King as their last resort.
In a similar structure to LA, the Rangers play defense in part by taking control of the puck but that's a lot harder to do against the Kings offense. Winning battles along the boards and handling LA's forecheck will be a big challenge for the Rangers defense and trying to find the right defensive matchups, whether it's simple line-matching or Vigneault getting a bit more involved, we'll have to wait and see. He has four lines to work with and the fourth line will get time as well as it is more of a defensive line than a traditional "energy line."
When it comes to their defensemen, what they lack in depth they make up for in quality. The Rangers give most of the work to the first and second pairings of Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi and Marc Staal-Anton Stralman. McDonagh is to the Rangers what Doughty is to the Kings, he means everything on both sides of the puck as a very good lockdown defenseman and great puck-mover/offensive play-maker. But the Staal-Stralman pairing is no slouch either and with Staal's size along with Stralman's underrated abilities, that pair could be just as important if not more so to the Rangers' attempts to quiet the Kings.
So far this postseason the Rangers have been very stingy defensively with just 2.25 goals against per game -- far better than LA's defense -- but they haven't faced a team that presents the challenges that this Kings offense does as the moment.
NYR Offense vs. LA Defense
No matter what GM Glen Sather has tried, offense has never been the strong suit of these Rangers, they are pretty average when it comes to goals whether it was in the regular season or in these playoffs, though they do have a lot working for them.
One massive factor to the Rangers' success in the playoffs has been their depth. The Rangers have four lines that Alain Vigneault will deploy and deploy well. From the top lines of Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Rick Nash and Carl Hagelin-Brad Richards-Martin St. Louis to their supposed third line of Mats Zuccarello-Derick Brassard-Benoit Pouliot and even the fourth group with Dominic Moore-Brian Boyle-Derek Dorsett, they all do one thing well and that's control the pace of the game. They also all have a lot of speed at their disposal, something the Rangers will very likely try their best to take full advantage of against the Kings and try to make them play a more up-tempo game. All four of the lines are capable of contributing, something that pretty much only Los Angeles and New York can truly say in these playoffs.
The interesting matchup here will be the Rangers' third line. We said it's their supposed third because this line has been their best pretty much all postseason long. Anytime they are on the ice it seems they are driving play in the offensive zone (the upside to Pouliot taking so many offensive-zone penalties is that means they are in the offensive zone a lot) and are a force. You can give a lot of credit to Vigneault for that as he does a great job of matching up that line against weaker competition, allowing them to feast a bit more on teams with lesser depth. It's worked.
But the Kings are a different animal than any the Rangers have seen thus far when it comes to defense. Coach Darryl Sutter has equally strong line depth to use and he does. He's not anywhere near as into the situational matchups as Vigneault is -- though will turn a lot to the second line of Dwight King-Jarret Stoll-Justin Williams in defensive situations -- he's not afraid to hard match his lines with the opposition's. That means the top line that features Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown will see a heck of a lot of Stepan's line and that's not good news for the Rangers. Consider that Kopitar has been matched up with Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews already in these playoffs and has not only survived but is excelling and you have a matchup that bodes well for LA because, well, Stepan isn't quite in the same company as those Western centers. Up and down the matchups go and again, the Kings actually have the depth that should match up well with the Rangers, at least keeping them from exploiting a weakness. Though on the fourth line it does start to tilt toward the Rangers as LA's group with Kyle Clifford-Mike Richards-Trevor Lewis hasn't been terrific.
All of that goes without mentioning LA's strong group on the blue line. Simply put, Drew Doughty has been excellent in these playoffs and is well on his way to becoming one of if not the very best defenseman in the game. He logs a ton of minutes (27:50 per game in the playoffs), seemingly never leaving the ice. An elite two-way player, he is very responsible in his own zone and is a lockdown defender. They have the veterans Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, each of whom still have a lot to offer defensively, to go with the younger guys that have stepped up in the last few years like Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez.
Partly a function of their offense (the best defense is a good offense?) they don't give up a lot of shots. Though it's up in the playoffs to just more than 30 per game, they were second in the league this season with 26.2 against per game. They are stout, physical and they have a lot of guys who excel at moving the puck among their defensive corps. There are lots of reasons why the Kings won the Jennings Trophy this season with the fewest goals against, the biggest being it's simply a very good group that in this postseason has survived three dynamite offensive squads.
Just two years ago this would have been a matchup of the top two goalies in the league in regards to Vezina Trophy voting, surely an even battle. Since that time the tables have turned to the point that this is pretty clearly an edge for the Eastern Conference champs.
It's almost a shame that it's taken this long for Henrik Lundqvist to reach the Stanley Cup Final. The fact that it has taken the Rangers 20 years to return is no fault of his, he's been the backbone of the Rangers for years now. If you go back to the early part of this season, Lundqvist was struggling by his standards. It came right around the time he was working on an extension with the team and there were people already doubting if that was a wise investment, thinking perhaps Cam Talbot should get more games. Alain Vigneault stuck it through with Lundqvist and it's paid off.
Perhaps it was the contract serving as a distraction or maybe it was an adjustment to slightly smaller pads but it took Lundqvist a while to get into the season but it happened and in the second half of the season as well as the playoffs, he's been exemplary between the pipes. He wasn't tremendously sharp in the conference finals vs. Montreal but still has a .928 save percentage. He's conservative in his style in net, is not prone to giving up a lot of rebounds and positionally very sound.
There's no disputing Lundqvist is the best goaltender the Kings have seen this postseason, too. In the first round Antti Niemi was a mess and the Ducks were in a far bleaker situation with their netminder. Then Chicago's Corey Crawford was next and either he had a rough two weeks or the Kings ate him up, possibly both. But none of those goalies is quite at Lundqvist's level. He's good enough that he can steal a game or two for the Rangers in the long haul but can he take a whole series? There's no doubting the Kings will test him.
On the other hand you have Jonathan Quick, who we all know what he's capable of. When you talk about Quick, most people seem to think back to 2011-12 when Quick was excellent in the regular season and just unbelievable in the playoffs. He had a postseason for the ages with a 16-4 record, a .946 save percentage and 1.41 GAA, arguably the best postseason a goalie has ever had. He then played his tail off last postseason and also performed well for the United States in Sochi. Quick has built a reputation on being a big-game goalie, however this postseason has been a different matter.
If we're being honest here, Quick was not good in the Western Conference finals. He was not a liability vs. the Blackhawks and there were times that Quick made some sparkling saves that few goaltenders are capable of, but the Blackhawks also scored some very cheap goals that most guys would stop. It all adds up to Quick carrying a .906 save percentage this postseason and yet the Kings are still playing. Unlike regular seasons past, his offense is actually giving him the goal support to make it stand up.
The thing is, Quick is prone to these kinds of streaks. In today's game where just about every goaltender looks like they came from a butterfly cookie-cutting factory, Quick plays with his own, unique style. No goaltender covers the bottom portion of the net better than Quick, he looks like a spider back there with how he crawls across the ice. He's on the aggressive side, too, not afraid to come out of his net or to move a lot. Stylistically, he's just about the most opposite you can get of Lundqvist for this matchup. What his aggressive style does is dictate that streakiness and it helps explain why he can make some jaw-dropping saves and then have others where he stinks it up. The key is trying to find consistency and the good news for the Kings is that we know he can do it over sustained periods. The bad news is he's been off that form lately.
If the Rangers are going to spring the upset of the favorite Kings, they'll likely have to do a lot of the work on special teams.
It's pretty funny how the Rangers were just a mess on the power play not that long ago. They were having horrific flashbacks of the John Tortorella era early in the postseason when they went 36 straight times without a power-play goal, a skid they have snapped out of. It's still not a world-beating machine but the Rangers have picked it up to the point that the power play isn't a liability anymore and that's a big step in the right direction. In total they rank 10th in the playoffs with a 13.6 conversion rate, pretty good given the funk they were in at one point. A key to the success has been cleanly gaining the zone, allowing them to set up a cycle offense. Maybe it just took a little more getting used to each other but Martin St. Louis has helped get the PP going with his one-timer that he fires from his knee. Brad Richards logs the most PP time of all, the driving force for the man advantage and with him are Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh from the back, the Rangers have plenty of talented players, it was just a matter of time before they started to find a rhythm.
They'll oppose a Kings penalty kill that has not been invincible this postseason. Despite this team's defensive prowess and players like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jarret Stoll, Willie Mitchell and crew, they have killed just 81.2 percent of penalties. Tactically, they aren't incredibly aggressive but they are effective at clogging up passing lanes and keeping their position. One issue is that the Kings spend their fair amount of time in the penalty box. This postseason alone the Kings are averaging 13 minutes of penalties per game, or three minutes more on average than the Rangers.
For the Kings' power play, the story is very similar to that of the offense, which should be of no surprise. It was not a terrific unit in the regular season but in these playoffs? Well they've been very good. Drew Doughty is tied for the playoff lead with nine points on the power play this season, eight of those coming on assists. Like everything else the Kings do, it seems, it starts with Doughty. But each of Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter have at least six points on the man advantage as well. It definitely helps having defenseman with the offensive abilities because not only has Doughty been huge on the power play but Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez have also helped the cause. The Kings are strong on the puck and possess it very well, no matter the type of situation they are in. That's helped their power play clock in at 25.4 percent in the postseason.
But in the special teams department it's strength on strength with the Rangers' penalty killing being its usual strong self. Their power play had struggles but there has been no such issue plaguing the PK, good mostly from the start (Philadelphia did have some success) until now. McDonagh and Dan Girardi are the workhorses from the defenseman standpoint with Marc Staal and Anton Stralman also seeing more big minutes while fourth-liners Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore take a good share of the load on the PK at forward along with Carl Hagelin. They still have a lot of shot-blocking tendencies to help out Lundqvist, who doesn't need a ton of help as it is.
|Los Angeles Kings vs.|
New York Rangers
|Wed June 4||8 ET||Los Angeles||NBC, CBC|
|Sat June 7||7 ET||Los Angeles||NBC, CBC|
|Mon June 9||8 ET||New York||NBCSN, CBC|
|Wed June 11||8 ET||New York||NBCSN, CBC|
|*Fri June 13||8 ET||Los Angeles||NBC, CBC|
|*Mon June 16||8 ET||New York||NBC, CBC|
|*Wed Jun 18||8 ET||Los Angeles||NBC, CBC|
|* if necessary|