By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor, The Sports Network
LOS ANGELES KINGS (3rd Place – Pacific)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 46-28-8
2014 PLAYOFFS: Defeated San Jose 4-3 in conference quarterfinals; defeated Anaheim 4-3 in conference semifinals; defeated Chicago 4-3 in conference finals
(SportsNetwork.com) – When the Los Angeles Kings won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title in 2012, the eighth-seeded club dominated the opposition with a 16-4 record and never once faced an elimination game.
In contrast, the Kings’ 2014 postseason run has been a lesson in survival. With a 5-4 overtime win over Chicago in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, Los Angeles became the first team in NHL history to reach the Stanley Cup Finals with three Game 7 victories. The fact that L.A. managed to win all three of those decisive contests on the road makes the feat all the more impressive.
Whether it was becoming only the fourth team in NHL history to win a series after falling behind 3-0, like the Kings did against San Jose in the opening round, or outlasting last year’s Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in seven games for the conference title, it’s pretty clear Los Angeles is an extremely dangerous team with its backs to the wall.
L.A.’s biggest asset — outside of the intangible qualities displayed during this spring’s playoff run — is the club’s tremendous depth at both ends of the ice. Head coach Darryl Sutter employs four lines up front and although Drew Doughty is the obvious superstar on the blue line, the club’s defensive corps goes deeper than him. Meanwhile, goaltender Jonathan Quick has experienced his shares of ups and downs in recent years, but the 2012 Conn Smythe winner is hardly a weak spot.
During the regular season, the Kings struggled scoring goals but putting the puck in the net hasn’t been an issue in the playoffs. L.A. ranked 26th in the NHL with 2.42 goals per game in the regular season, but is the highest-scoring team in this postseason with 3.48 goals per contest. The added offensive punch has come at a cost on defense, however, as L.A. was No. 1 in the league with 2.05 goals against during the regular season but is surrendering an average of 2.86 goals in the playoffs.
Marian Gaborik, who was acquired from Columbus at this season’s trade deadline, has been a huge boost for Los Angeles’ offense in the playoffs. The former New York Ranger is leading all players in the postseason with 12 goals and also has added seven assists.
Jeff Carter, who had eight goals to help L.A. lift the Cup in 2012, already has nine goals in this postseason. He is second in the league with 22 points this spring, sitting behind only his teammate Anze Kopitar, who has five goals and 19 assists.
Kopitar, a finalist for this season’s Selke Trophy, is perhaps the Kings’ best all-around forward. He is leading all L.A. forwards with 20 minutes, 18 seconds of ice time per game and is a valuable weapon for Sutter in all situations.
The Kings forward depth keeps on going from there, with veteran players like captain Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams logging valuable minutes. Williams, a winger with a penchant for Game 7 heroics, has seven goals and 11 assists this spring, while Brown has four goals and eight assists. Stoll, meanwhile, is Sutter’s go-to faceoff guy.
With all the notable players up front, Tyler Toffoli tends to get lost in the shuffle among L.A.’s forwards. Nonetheless, he is having a terrific postseason for the Kings with seven goals and six assists to his credit.
Doughty is a dynamic talent at the back end for Los Angeles and is leading all defensemen this postseason with 16 points (4G, 12A). He also is averaging 27:50 of ice time and has the ability to take over a game.
With Doughty drawing much of the spotlight on the blue line, the rest of L.A.’s defense largely goes unnoticed but it’s a strong overall unit. Jake Muzzin has five goals and six assists in the postseason, while Alec Martinez, who notched the OT winner in Game 7 against Chicago, has four tallies and five helpers.
Slava Voynov logs the second-most ice time for L.A. at 22:28 and has two goals and five helpers this spring. Willie Mitchell plays a valuable stay-at-home role for L.A. and is averaging 20:50 of ice time per game.
Quick is generally considered to be one of the better goaltenders in the league, but he hasn’t been on the top of his game this spring. The 28-year-old American has a 2.86 goals against average and .906 save percentage this season, with both of those numbers falling well short of the standards set over his previous two postseasons.
In 2012, Quick boasted a 1.41 GAA and .946 save percentage. Last season, when L.A. lost in the conference finals to Chicago, the Connecticut native had a .934 save percentage and 1.86 GAA.
Quick’s inconsistent play is perhaps the only concern for the team heading into the Cup Finals, but his overall track record in the playoffs suggests he could bounce back.
The Kings’ special teams has been solid in the 2014 playoffs, with the club posting a strong 25.4 percent success rate on the power play while killing off 81.2 percent of its penalties.
NEW YORK RANGERS
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 45-31-6 (2nd place, Metropolitan)
2014 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Philadelphia 4-3 in conference quarterfinals; defeated Pittsburgh 4-3 in conference semifinals; defeated Montreal 4-2 in conference finals
It hasn’t been an easy road, but the New York Rangers have found their way back to the Stanley Cup Finals after 20 years.
New York made it to the conference finals in 2012 before losing to New Jersey, and after falling in the second round to Boston last spring the club decided to pull the plug on the John Tortorella era. Enter new head coach Alain Vigneault, who survived a rocky start to the season to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in his career, returning to the championship round after getting Vancouver within one win of a title in 2011.
The Rangers are coming off their easiest test of the 2014 playoffs, as they beat Montreal in six games for the Eastern Conference title after going the distance against Philadelphia in Round 1 and overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to defeat Pittsburgh in the conference semis.
New York entered the Montreal series as slight underdogs, but the Blueshirts grabbed the Habs’ attention with a 7-2 victory in Game 1 and would only lose Games 3 and 5 en route to picking up the franchise’s first Stanley Cup berth since last winning it all in 1994.
Henrik Lundqvist, of course, is one reason the Rangers find themselves back on the NHL’s biggest stage. The Swedish goaltender is having the best postseason of his already noteworthy career, posting a 2.03 GAA and .928 save percentage in 20 games this spring. He came through with his first shutout of the 2014 playoffs to wrap up the series against Montreal, anchoring a 1-0 victory in Game 6 of the conference finals.
The 32-year-old Lundqvist won an Olympic gold medal with Team Sweden in 2006, but has yet to reach the top of the NHL mountain. He’ll likely need to be New York’s best player for the club to help the Rangers earn their fifth Stanley Cup championship.
Back in ’94, New York followed captain and unquestioned team leader Mark Messier to the promised land, but this current iteration of the Rangers is captain-less. Having nobody to wear the “C” obviously hasn’t hindered the Blueshirts at all this spring, and that’s due in part to the leadership provided by Martin St. Louis, who was acquired in March from Tampa Bay in the deal that sent previous team captain Ryan Callahan to the Lightning.
The Rangers rallied around St. Louis in the conference semifinals following the sudden death of the veteran winger’s mother. With his team down 3-1 in the series, St. Louis played in Game 5 in Pittsburgh just one day after learning of the death of his mother. It was a turning point for New York in both the series and postseason.
With 13 points in 20 playoff games, St. Louis is tied with fellow forward Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh for the team scoring lead.
The 38-year-old St. Louis brings a wealth of playoff experience to the Rangers. He won a Stanley Cup title with Tampa Bay in 2004 along with Brad Richards, who has five goals and six assists in 20 playoff games this spring. Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Lightning in ’04 and has compiled 89 points (33G, 56A) over 113 career postseason games. St. Louis has 81 points (39G, 42A) over 82 lifetime playoff appearances.
Although Richards and St. Louis provide much-needed experience in the Cup Finals, the last time an NHL club without a captain won the Stanley Cup was the 1972 Boston Bruins.
In addition to the former Tampa Bay champions, the Rangers’ forward group is loaded with speed and scoring. New York boasts 12 forwards with two or more goals in this postseason and seven of those guys have four or more markers.
Carl Hagelin is one of the speed demons for the Blueshirts, and he is tied with St. Louis for the team lead with six goals. Chris Kreider is another burner up front, and he has made New York a much more difficult team to play against since returning from injury midway through the Pittsburgh series. Kreider, who also is blessed with size to go with his speed, has four goals and six assists in 10 games this spring.
One of the few Rangers having a difficult postseason is highly-paid winger Rick Nash, who has managed just three goals in 20 games this spring. The big, talented forward also has seven assists and has played a key role on the penalty kill, but New York obviously would benefit from Nash making a bigger impact on offense.
New York’s fourth line has been very effective for Vigneault in these playoffs and the coach hopes he can continue to count on the unit of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett for valuable minutes. Los Angeles is a team capable of rolling four lines, and the Kings will wear the opposition down if they can’t do the same.
One of New York’s best offensive weapons in Round 3 was McDonagh, who pumped in 10 points (2G, 8A) from the back end in six games against the Canadiens. In addition to leading New York’s blue line in goals (3) and assists (10) this spring, McDonagh is logging a team-high average ice time of 25:11 per contest. McDonagh’s regular defensive partner Dan Girardi, who has one goal and six assists this postseason, is next on the team with an average ice time of 22:54.
Marc Staal and Anton Stralman give New York a strong second pairing on the blue line. Both players have five points this postseason, with Staal notching a goal and four assists and Stralman adding five helpers.
Kevin Klein has added a goal and three assists in 20 games this spring and is normally paired with John Moore. However, Moore was suspended for two games after an illegal hit against Montreal’s Dale Weise in Game 5 of the conference finals and will miss Game 1 of the final round. Raphael Diaz replaced Moore for Game 6 against the Habs and expects to fill that role again in the opener of the Cup Finals.
The Rangers hope to find some consistency on the power play in the Cup Finals, as the club has struggled mightily at times with the man advantage this spring. All told, New York has scored 11 times on 81 power-play chances (13.6 percent) in the 2014 playoffs.
The penalty kill, meanwhile, has been terrific throughout the playoffs. New York has killed 85.9 percent (55-of-64) of its penalties in this postseason. Only the Philadelphia Flyers, who fell to the Rangers in Round 1, have a better PK percentage in this year’s playoffs.
The Kings and Rangers met twice this season and each team picked up a road victory. New York posted a 3-1 decision at the Staples Center on Oct. 7, while L.A. recorded a 1-0 triumph on Nov. 17. Lundqvist played in both games for New York, but Quick only played in the loss at New York. Ben Scrivens, currently a member of the Edmonton Oilers, posted the shutout for the Kings on Nov. 17.
This will be the third all-time playoff meetings between these franchises. New York won the previous two encounters, sweeping a three-game series in the opening round in 1979 before taking another first-round encounter in 1981, beating the Kings, 3-1.
The Kings are considerable favorites in this championship matchup, but the Rangers are by no means an easy opponent for L.A. New York may not have L.A. matched in terms of depth, but the Blueshirts’ speed does pose a problem for the Kings.
New York’s best shot at pulling off this upset lies in the crease, where Lundqvist needs to outplay Quick to give his team a real shot at taking home the Cup.
Coming out of the West — clearly the stronger of the NHL’s two conferences — sets L.A. up as the favorite in this series, but unlike some of its Eastern Conference brethren, New York has the skill set to hang with the Kings.
Still, L.A.’s ability to play its best when the chips are down is the most valuable asset to have this time of year. Expect New York to hang with the Kings for a while, but L.A. should have enough left in the tank to add a second Cup crown to the trophy case.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Kings in 6