By Bob Herpen, Contributing NHL Writer
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – Well before tonight’s drop of the puck for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings have defied the odds and managed to make history.
Prior to this season, no team which had endured more than 19 postseason games through the first three rounds ever made it to the league’s terminal best-of- seven set.
In 2014, both the Eastern and Western Conference champions blew that rule to bits and may very likely set up a veritable death struggle, all things being equal, where the winner might be the team which has the most players still able to put one skate in front of the other.
In taking every series to its absolute limit, the Kings became just the third team in NHL history to skate in 21 games before the Stanley Cup Finals. And they did it the hard way, making a historic rally from 0-3 down in the first round against San Jose, erasing a 3-2 deficit against Anaheim, then wasting a 3-1 series edge against defending champions Chicago only to win on the road in overtime in a seventh game.
The 1993 Maple Leafs and 2002 Avalanche slogged through a similar postseason minefield, but both lost in a conference final Game 7. Toronto memorably fell victim on home ice to Wayne Gretzky’s hat trick to send the top team in California to their first-ever Cup series, while Colorado was blitzed on the road at Detroit, just one more speed bump in the Red Wings’ quest for their third title since 1997.
The Rangers didn’t exactly make things easier on themselves, but they have a bit more experience dealing with a heavy workload. For the second time in three seasons, the Blueshirts suited up for 20 games in the first three rounds. Unlike 2012, New York showed no signs of wear from taking the quarterfinals with the Flyers and semifinals over the Penguins to the limit, and topped Montreal at home in Game 6 last week — which erased the sting of dropping a Game 6 to the Devils in overtime two years ago which sent New Jersey to the finals against L.A.
So, that’s a combined 41 contests of playoff experience between these two major-market mavens and we haven’t even gotten to the games that really matter yet. In contrast, when the Red Wings and Penguins met for the first of back- to-back title bouts in 2008, the clubs accounted for just 30 opening faceoffs between them.
Since the advent of best-of-seven rounds for the entire NHL playoffs became the rule in 1987, no club has reached the Stanley Cup in less than 13 contests. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim lay claim to that bit of luck in their unsuccessful attempt at winning the Cup in 2003. While we might think the team which is fresher and has less wear and tear might have an advantage and a better path to winning, history tells us it’s not so — and that may bode well for Los Angeles’ continued miracle rise.
In the first 26 championship matchups under the current format, only eight teams (1987-88 Oilers, 1993 Canadiens, 1994 Rangers, 2001 Avalanche, 2004 Lightning, 2010 Blackhawks and 2012 Kings) which played fewer games than their Cup Finals opponent skated away with the 35-pound trophy. Discarding the four times that both teams played an equal amount of games through the conference finals (’96 Avs-Panthers, 18 each; 2000 Devils-Stars, 17 each; 2002 Red Wings- Hurricanes 18 each; 2011 Bruins-Canucks 18 each), that leaves 14 occasions where the winner of the Stanley Cup had to endure more collective time on the ice than the runner-up.
That alone seem to suggest that an ultimate reward lay ahead for whichever conference representative is better battle tested, but how else to distinguish between the chances of the Kings and Rangers, who set another mark for longest postseason paths by laying waste to the previous high of 36 combined games for Stanley Cup opponents?
In the 14 times the club with more playoff games under their belt won the Cup, eight of those went to the Campbell/Western Conference champion, with last season’s Chicago Blackhawks the most recent example. Calgary (’89), Edmonton (’90), Detroit (’97-’98, ’08), Dallas (’99), Anaheim (’07) were the others.
Should the Stanley Cup Finals progress past five games, both franchises are looking, at the very least, to equal NHL records for total games played through an entire playoff year. The Philadelphia Flyers set the pace in 1987 by participating in 26, and that was eventually matched by the Calgary Flames in 2004. Both, by the way, came up short in Game 7s on the road, undone by the grueling course traveled to that point.
And one more thing: since the NHL made the Cup Finals a best-of-seven in 1939, the team which has won Game 1 emerged victorious 77 percent (57-of-74) of the time. The Kings lost two of their three Game 1s this postseason, while the Rangers won all three of their series openers. Doesn’t seem like a guaranteed winner will be revealed from the club which outscores their opponent tonight at Staples Center.
Whatever the final count, and whoever emerges victorious, it looks like this year’s Stanley Cup clash will be worthy of previous championships contested by the Knicks and Lakers and Dodgers and Yankees at the height of their powers.