By Allan Muir
Former Ranger Marian Gaborik has been on a scoring tear with 19 points in 21 playoff games. (Getty Images)
Oct. 7: Rangers 3 at Kings 1
Nov. 17: Kings 1 at Rangers 0
Kings: D Robyn Regehr (day-to-day, lower body injury, may return in this series)
Rangers: G Cam Talbot (day-to-day, unspecified)
How they got here
Photos: Kings' road to the Cup final
Photos: Rangers' road to the Cup final
After finishing the regular season with the NHL's 26th-rated attack, Los Angeles has discovered the joy of turning the red light on during the playoffs. The Kings are averaging a league-high 3.48 postseason goals-per-game, led by four of the top-five scorers: Anze Kopitar (24), Jeff Carter (22), Marian Gaborik (19) and Justin Williams (18).
Those four are spread out over three lines, making them a nightmare for New York's defense. But the bigger problem might be the one-sided matchup at center ice. With Kopitar, Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards down the middle, the Kings own a sizable advantage over New York's group of Derek Stepan, Brad Richards, Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore. The ability of L.A.'s group to gain and maintain possession--they're at 52.7 percent in the circle--will challenge the strength and commitment of the Rangers.
New York's offense has been sufficient, but hardly proficient, counting two regulation goals or fewer in 10 of its past 15 games. Martin St. Louis, Stepan and Ryan McDonagh are tied for the team lead with 13 points, and not one Ranger has more than six goals during this postseason--the Kings boast four who have topped that mark, including a legitimate game-breaker in Gaborik (12). Chris Kreider (10 points in 10 games) can make an impact with his size and net drive, and Carl Hagelin's speed will challenge L.A.'s coverage. Don't waste time hoping that Rick Nash will start rippin' Genos. At this point, count any scoring he provides as an unexpected bonus.
L.A.'s Drew Doughty anchors a deep, skilled blueline corps. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Since Game 4 of the San Jose series, Drew Doughty has basically become the world's best hockey player. L.A.'s leading candidate to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy is on the ice every other shift, averaging 27:50 per game, and can be both the Kings' best offensive weapon and ultimate stopper. He was lousy in Game 7 against the Hawks, but now that he's got that stinker out of his system, he could be the signature player of this series. Jake Muzzin has proved that he's more than Doughty's sidekick, bringing a heavy physical game with serious shutdown skills. Veteran Willie Mitchell has been a rock on the second pair with Slava Voynov, but that could change if Regehr is able to return to the lineup. With Alec Martinez and Matt Greene rounding out the top six, this group has a nice mix of young legs, good hands, physicality and experience.
The Rangers will rely heavily on Ryan McDonagh. The 24-year-old had his coming-out party against the Canadiens, scoring 10 points in the six game series and positioning himself as a viable counter to Doughty. Partner Dan Girardi is a solid safety valve, ranking second in blocked shots and fifth in hits. Marc Staal is playing with a nasty edge, and Anton Stralman has been quietly effective. The third pair doesn't get a lot of credit, but both Kevin Klein (55.3 percent) and John Moore (53.5 percent) have Corsi ratings that suggest they're getting it done at both ends of the ice. (Moore, suspension, is out for Game 1.) It's a capable group, but at crunch time, it's still only three men deep. The Kings can rely on all three of their pairs without hesitation.
To drink from the Cup, Henrik Lundqvist will have to put on quite a show for New York. (Charles Laberge/SI)
Everyone who is waiting for the arrival of the Conn Smythe-version of Jonathan Quick can stand down. Going by what we've seen so far--.906 save percentage and 2.86 GAA in the playoffs--that otherworldly performer isn't likely to make an appearance in the final. Instead, the Kings will count on a 'keeper who plays more like a modern-day Grant Fuhr, one who allows the occasional softie but holds the opposition close with big stops when most needed.
Will that be enough in this series? Quick was given the leeway to fish the occasional groaner out of his net by an offense that's been unexpectedly prolific in these playoffs. But while the Kings proved they could light up Cup winners Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford, they're in for a different challenge in Henrik Lundqvist. The King has hit a rough patch or two along the way, but he still leads all playoff goalies with a .928 save percentage, is second with a 2.03 GAA, and has held his opposition to two goals or fewer in 15 of his 20 appearances. Over the past nine games, he's allowed just 15 goals--11 fewer than Quick. The King has carried the Rangers for the past two months. Another two weeks isn't out of the question. Lundqvist is New York's best shot at stealing this series.
Jeff Carter leads the playoffs with four power play goals. (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
The Blackhawks entered the Western Conference Final with a penalty kill humming along at 91.3 percent, tops in the playoffs. By the time the series was over, it had been shredded for six goals on 17 chances by the Kings' power play, including a five-for-10 streak in Games 2 through 4. With Doughty playing rover and Kopitar and Carter dishing the puck down low, the unit gets great movement and generates quality chances. The Rangers will counter with a brutally efficient PK that choked the Canadiens. McDonagh and Girardi will be in heavy rotation along with the relentless Brian Boyle, a shot-blocking hero who is about to make out very nicely in free agency because of these playoffs. The difference maker, though, is Lundqvist, whose .900 save percentage on the PK is best among starters.
New York's power play sputtered to life in the Montreal series, but at just 13.5 percent it'll be hard-pressed to become a game-changer against the Kings' smart, physical PK.
This won't be the first time that Darryl Sutter meets up with Alain Vigneault in the postseason. Sutter's eighth-seeded Kings upset Vigneault's top-ranked Canucks in five games in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs, a loss that almost cost the Vancouver coach his job. Whatever failings AV had in that meeting have been addressed in New York. He's proved in these playoffs that he has his finger on the pulse of his team, and his ability to make in-game adjustments, as well as his knack for picking horses that have live legs, have keyed the success of the Rangers. Sutter's been equally adept at pushing the right buttons--his line juggling in Game 7 instigated that come-from-behind win over Chicago--and he has an amazing track record of success. He's been behind the L.A. bench for 10 playoff series and won nine of them.
Veteran winger Martin St. Louis has been a source of great inspiration for the Rangers. (Charles Laberge/SI)
The Rangers feel like they have an angel looking over them since Martin St. Louis’ mother passed away in the middle of their second-round battle with the Penguins. Hokey or not, they're a different team since the tragedy (the death of Dominic Moore's wife in January 2013 has also been an inspiration) going 7-2 while playing with a renewed focus and sense of purpose.
The Kings have written their own amazing story of resilience this spring, bouncing back from 0-3 against the Sharks, going 7-0 in elimination games, and becoming the first team in NHL history to claim three Game 7 victories on the road. After clinching their Cup final berth by coming from behind three times last Sunday night against the defending champs in Chicago, this team has confidence in spades.
It's not a stretch to imagine Lundqvist starring in a one-man show that ends with a ticker tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes, but that's pretty much the only way the Rangers can prevail in this series. The Kings are such an imposing team physically, and they have the speed and depth to negate New York's biggest asset up front. This final will go longer than most people expect, but Los Angeles will grind the Rangers down in the end. Kings in seven.
STANLEY CUP BLUEPRINTS: How the Rangers and Kings were built
(All times Eastern; * if necessary)
Game 1: Wed., June 4 at L.A., 8 p.m. (NBC, CBC, RDS)
Game 2: Sat., June 7 at L.A., 7:30 p.m. (NBC, CBC, RDS)
Game 3: Mon., June 9 at N.Y., 8 p.m. (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)
Game 4: Wed., June 11 at N.Y., 8 p.m. (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)
*Game 5: Fri., June 13 at L.A., 8 p.m. (NBC, CBC, RDS)
*Game 6: Mon., June 16 at N.Y., 8 p.m. (NBC, CBC, RDS)
*Game 7: Wed., June 18 at L.A., 8 p.m. (NBC, CBC, RDS)