By Allan Muir
It takes four victories to capture the Stanley Cup, but only one to suggest which team should start planning a parade.
Since the final went to a best-of-seven format in 1939, the winner of Game 1 has gone on to drink from the old mug in 57 of 74 series. That's a .770 historical winning percentage. That success rate has dipped recently, but only slightly. Over the last 20 seasons, the Game 1 winner has gone 13-7 (.650), including the Kings who captured their opener against the Devils in 2012.
Can they repeat that feat as the 2014 Stanley Cup Final opens tonight in Los Angeles (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS)? It won't be easy. The Kings may be the heavy favorites and have the advantage of home ice, but they come into this series against he upstart New York Rangers having climbed the steepest hill in NHL history.
The Kings are the first club to survive the maximum 21 games to get to the final, and they had to knock off three of the NHL's top-seven teams -- San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago -- along the way while prevailing in three Game 7s on the road, another feat no club had ever achieved.
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Enviable depth or not, that kind of competition takes a toll.
Rest was critical to the Kings' Cup win in 2012. By dispatching their first three foes in just 14 games, they earned a total of 21 days off before meeting up with New Jersey in the final.
This time around, they've had just eight days to catch their breath.
Naturally, they're looking at that as a positive.
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"You don't really want to have a long layover anyway," Anze Kopitar said to the assembled media on Tuesday. "This time of the year everybody is energized and the room is pretty relaxed. [It] definitely helps having some experience from a couple years ago. You know how to handle it a little bit better, how to channel it toward tomorrow and be ready for it."
Fair enough. But there's also the looming specter of an emotional letdown in the wake of their roller-coaster series against Chicago, a team that's emerged as a true rival after consecutive conference final meetings. Kings captain Dustin Brown called it "the most emotional series I've been a part of." Stanley Cup Final or not, any opponent would feel like a letdown compared to the defending champion Blackhawks.
To get over that hump, L.A. will have to rely on more than just its experience and depth. Winning this one will come down to re-committing to a defensive structure that wavered at times during the conference final and taking advantage of opportunities, especially on the power play. The Rangers had some discipline issues against the Canadiens in the last round, and while their penalty kill was a reliable antidote against the Habs, the Kings have more weapons at their disposal, including Kopitar--who leads the playoffs in scoring despite a shooting percentage that is 6/10s lower than he posted during the regular season--as well as Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik.
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For New York, the approach to winning Game 1 on the road is straight forward. First, pray that Henrik Lundqvist is on his game. The all-world 'keeper is more than capable of stealing not just games the Rangers don't deserve to win, but the whole enchilada.
"He's the backbone of the team," said defacto captain Brad Richards. "That's why this team is relevant every year. When I signed here I knew I would get opportunities because he can steal series and games."
There are concerns that Lundqvist might be vulnerable to some regression, as his numbers--a league-best .928 save percentage and a .203 GAA--are better than the .920 and 2.36 he posted during the regular season.
But he's not their only hope.
The Rangers might find an edge by using their speed to test the Kings' energy level early in Game 1. The Kings have faced some burners along the way, including Chicago's fit-inducing Patrick Kane in the last round, but nothing quite like the array of rocket-fueled forwards the Rangers will ice. Much of that fury is concentrated on the left side where Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin and Benoit Pouliot will pose a real challenge for the Kings' right defenders. If the Blueshirts can pick up some momentum in the neutral zone and maintain control as they enter L.A.'s end, they can tax the mobility of the Kings and create the same sort of opportunities off the rush that worked for the Hawks.
Once there, look for the Rangers to get to the net in a hurry. Other than Kreider, they might be challenged to hold their position as well as Chicago's heavier forwards did, but the Rangers saw the Hawks feast on screens, deflections and rebounds against Jonathan Quick. If they hope to draw first blood, they may have to sacrifice a bit of their own in the blue paint.
PREDICTION: Rangers 2, Kings 1