The NHL couldn’t have planned things any better for the 2014 Stanley Cup Final as the nation’s two biggest media markets will duel against one another for the Cup as the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings start the final series of the year on Wednesday.
Los Angeles managed to squeak by the Chicago Blackhawks after jumping out to a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Final while the Rangers dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in six games after Carey Price was put on the shelf with an injury.
The early returns on the matchup has many fans and experts pointing to the Kings as the expected champs, giving Los Angeles their second Cup in three years. However, the Rangers have more than enough depth and firepower to not only give the Kings a run but even bring the Cup back to the Big Apple.
Henrik Lundqvist will need to serve as the factor that lifts the Rangers to the Cup as I feel that Los Angeles holds a decided edge in nearly every other facet of the game. Lundqvist has been superb this season while Jonathan Quick has had to work through some struggles and consistency issues over the Kings 21 previous games.
One factor that many are pointing to is that Los Angeles has needed seven games to get through all three of their series while the Rangers are enjoying a bit more rest. However, the Rangers needed seven games against both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while taking six more to get by Montreal. So they’ve only played one game fewer than the Kings while going through more travel in the first two rounds than the Kings did in their first two series.
It is understandable that the mental exhaustion pushing against the Kings has likely grown in each round as they rallied from a 3-0 deficit against San Jose, battled through a back-and-forth affair against their cross-town rivals and then had to endure a marathon against the Blackhawks. The Rangers have had slightly less stress on their plate, although they had to win three-straight to get by Pittsburgh in the second. So, while the Rangers got to relax on their couches for a few more days after taking the Eastern Conference title, I don’t think they have stores of energy that will help them run LA out of the building on Wednesday.
One intriguing matchup will be how LA’s potent power play fares against New York’s stingy shorthanded unit. The Rangers boast one of the most effective penalty kills in the playoffs while the Kings sit at the top of the league with the extra man. Most of the focus will fall on Lundqvist when the Rangers are shorthanded, but if the Kings lose that portion of their attack it could drastically alter the series.
LA otherwise has a deeper attack and blueline than the Rangers entering the series. The emergence of Dominic Moore, Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard has aided the Rangers along the way, but the forward depth LA possesses is almost unmatched. One you’re past the top line of Brown, Kopitar and Gaborik and the equally impressive That 70’s Line of Pearson, Carter and Toffoli, the Kings still have Dwight King, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and others to their credit. When you consider that three of LA’s lines are equally impressive in their own end as they are in the attacking zone, it makes them that much more daunting of an opponent.
It’s not all that surprising to see such a terrific roster in LA given that they are two years removed from their first Cup victory and they paced the league in terms of possession for the year. When the defensive depth chart includes Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynov and Robyn Regehr there’s a good chance that every unit that hits the ice is going to be effective.
Don’t misunderstand the tire pumping that I’ve given the Kings as an indication that they’re going to breeze through the Final, I just see them as the superior team.
Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis form an impressive forward corps, but I don’t see the same quality of depth in the New York lineup. Once you’re past McDonagh, Girardi and Staal on the backend things seem to get a little thin as well. Overall, the Rangers are a very strong team that are about to showdown with a stronger, more effective squad.
Kings in five