Photo credit: Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports
It’s never easy for any team to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. The New York Rangers and the LA Kings are the first two teams in history to play 20 or more games and make it to the Final. It’ll be an interesting series as head coaches Alain Vigneault and Darryl Sutter know each other quite well, though the players share less familiarity on the ice.
The Rangers had a less difficult road to the Final, facing less than dominant teams in the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens. The highest ranked possession team in the aforementioned list was Pittsburgh at 16 while Montreal and Philadelphia ranked 22nd and 23rd respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, the Kings faced the San Jose Sharks (third), Anaheim Ducks (fifteenth) and the Chicago Blackhawks (second). It’s also worth noting that the three western conference teams LA beat were three of the highest scoring teams during the regular season and had a combined 334 points. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Montreal had combined 303 points. This doesn’t diminish everything New York did because they obviously worked hard to get to the Final; however, the caliber of their competition was far less difficult than what LA faced.
With their second Final appearance in three years, the Kings are considered a favorite to win the Cup this year. They even have home ice advantage over the Rangers and if the series goes seven games, they won’t have to win their last game on the road for once. However, the Rangers had five days of rest before flying out to LA Monday afternoon while the Kings barely got in at 2am Sunday after defeating the Blackhawks. It may take a while before the Kings find their legs and will likely rely on Jonathan Quick to hold off any Rangers surges until LA finds its game. Quick will need to be sharp early to give his team a chance.
That said, let’s take a look at what some of the key matchups will be, starting in goal.
Henrik Lundqvist: Widely regarded as one of the best goalies in the world, Lundqvist more than lives up to his reputation as an elite goalie, posting a sterling .920 career save percentage (.915 is average for an NHL goalie). He has been consistently great throughout the playoffs this year and backstopped the Rangers to a victory over Pittsburgh when they probably had no business winning that series. He will need to be spectacular in order to stop LA’s high powered offense and give his team a shot at winning the Cup for the first time in 20 years.
Jonathan Quick: A league average goalie with a career .915 save percentage, he is often (incorrectly) hailed as elite. His strong, athletic play can certainly steal games but it can also lose them. He has been streaky this postseason (though when you’re facing three of the best, highest scoring teams in the league, it’d be difficult to maintain any kind of save percentage at or above average), allowing some soft goals before turning around and robbing guys (This empty net may haunt Brent Seabrook‘s dreams). If he can be consistent and maintain at least average play, there’s a good chance he can backstop the Kings to another Cup.
Ryan McDonagh: Flourishing in Alain Vigneault’s offense-friendly system, McDonagh is having a breakout year and is quickly becoming one of the best young defensemen in the league. With speed and a good hockey sense, he is the driver for New York’s defense and is able to shut down top competition. He will likely see a lot of time matched up against LA’s top line.
Drew Doughty: At just 24 years old, Doughty has made a name for himself as an elite defensemen. Outside of probably Anze Kopitar, he is Sutter’s most trusted and valuable asset. No other player on the team receives more minutes or is relied on as much to play in more key situations than him. Like McDonagh, Doughty has been having a stellar postseason and is a heavy favorite for the Conn Smythe if LA wins.
Derek Stepan: He’s not very strong on the draw (only a 41.5% success rate in the playoffs), but he is incredibly fast and has a good awareness of what’s happening around him. He can score goals and is a dangerous player around the net. He will likely see a lot of LA’s top line and his best asset will be his foot speed.
Anze Kopitar: After going head-to-head with three elite centers, Kopitar may find his life in the faceoff circle a little easier. But that won’t make the rest of his job any easier as he’ll likely be tasked with trying to shut down Stepan’s line. If Kopitar can play with the same dominant force that he played at in the first two rounds, his line should win any matchup they face. He can probably match speed, but it’d be unwise to turn the game into a track meet since that would greatly favor New York.
Keys for Success
- If the top lines play each other to a draw and it comes down to depth, New York probably has the edge. They have good possession numbers and though they haven’t gotten scored on alot throughout the playoffs, they’ve gotten them when it matters most (i.e.: Dominic Moore, who plays on their fourth line, getting the game winning goal against Montreal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final).
- If games end up requiring pure speed, that greatly benefits New York, whose top six are very fast.
- If it comes down to defense, LA may have the edge. It might seem otherwise, but again, three of the highest scoring teams in the league probably won’t suddenly have much trouble finding the back of the net in the postseason. Their top defensive unit has been incredible so far and has constantly flustered top opponents while regression to the mean favors their struggling second unit.
- If it comes down to a slow, grind it out style of play, that greatly benefits LA who is more than comfortable with a hard hitting physical series. Strong forechecking is LA’s bread and butter and a major staple of their game. They’ll need it to inhibit the Rangers as much as possible.
Prediction: This goes to 7 games and will be extraordinary for neutral fans, but painful (in a “OH MY GOD WHY IS THIS SO CLOSE” way) for dedicated team fans.