By Joshua Colfin
As the New York Rangers closed out their spirited 2-1 Game 7 victory over the Washington Capitals, you could already start to hear the faint murmurs of a 1994 reunion in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It seemed for days that the anxious fans of New York were waiting on a win to propel them on to their next foe, the rival New Jersey Devils. With that win, the Rangers advanced to the farthest they have been in the playoffs since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier playing together and it marks the first time the Rangers will face the Devils in the Eastern Finals since Stéphane Matteau’s dramatic goal that is now forever etched in playoff lore.
On the other side of the country, you have two, largely unheralded teams advancing to the Western Conference Finals. For the Los Angeles Kings, the ride has seemed anything but difficult. Only taking 9 games to reach their destination so far, the Kings have put together a very surprising 8-1 record in these playoffs. The most astonishing fact is that they are the 8th seed in these playoffs and have had to knock out both the #1 and #2 seeds. In the first round, they dismantled the NHL’s best regular season team in the Vancouver Canucks in five games while they swept the St. Louis Blues in the second round, almost making it look easy at times.
Now comes the real test for the Kings as they will play the rather unexpected Phoenix Coyotes. I say, unexpected because for many reasons, it’s almost unbelievable the Coyotes have been able to have any success within the past few seasons. Stuck in the desert where attendance has been dwindling to the point where the team was almost on its way to Hamilton, Seattle, or Quebec, the Coyotes persevered and have the given the city a team to cheer about.
A team that has largely competed without any major superstars (some may call captain Shane Doan one), the Coyotes have persevered on a team first mentality and hard-work. Thanks to Don Maloney, former New York Rangers Assistant GM and player, who has constructed this team over the past five years, the Coyotes went from being a lost and forgotten about organization to one that is a yearly playoff contender. Whether the fans and the city will live to appreciate that is another story.
After exiting the playoffs in the first round the past two years, the Coyotes have been sailing in unchartered waters through the past round. After a seven game scare versus the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, the Coyotes quietly knocked the Nashville Predators out after only five games in the second round.
The two teams from the West can be easily comparable at times. Both have an unflappable netminder in LA’s Jonathan Quick and Phoenix’s Mike Smith, and both have captains that will do whatever it takes to get their team to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Kings’ Dustin Brown has already been garnering an MVP worthy playoffs with multiple game-winning goals in the first two rounds while the Coyotes’ Shane Doan has been known for his physicality and ability to score the big goal when needed. The defenses can also be compared with both teams having shutdown cores with one defenseman that normally stands above the rest and will play in all aspects of the series (LA’s Drew Doughty and Phoenix’s Keith Yandle).
The only major difference one can see when examining the two Western powers lies in the offense. Although the Coyotes have been able to get all they can from the team-first attitude and hard work, one has to wonder how well they stack up against the Kings’ potent attack. Led by Brown, Anze Kopitar, and former Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the Kings’ have seemed like the most dominant team in the playoffs at times, which is scary considering they almost missed the playoff cut. When it all comes down to it, it looks as though the Kings have all the necessary tools to win the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Now back to the Rangers and Devils. It seems that all of the metropolitan area is begging for this series to be as equally dramatic as the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. Although many would love to compare the characteristics of each team to their 1994 counterpart, it would be unfair to say this series is anything like the past. Unlike 1994, the Rangers have had a difficult journey to the Eastern Finals, taking the maximum 14 games possible with both first round matchups going the distance. The Devils, on the other hand, dispatched the Flyers in five games and have been well rested since Tuesday.
The Devils, who have won four straight since dropping Game 1 at Philadelphia, will be difficult to stop with their constant aggressive forecheck on the puck. The Rangers, will nevertheless have to look to quell the attack with the likes of Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal. Look for Special Teams to also play a factor in the series. The Rangers power play struggled at times throughout the Capitals series but came up big in certain situations to make the difference. The Devils, on the other hand, scored power play goals in all but one game against the Flyers and will look to continue that success into the next round.
The goaltending matchup between the ageless wonder, Martin Brodeur and the King, Henrik Lundqvist will easily be one of the most talked about storylines throughout the series. Brodeur, who was just a rookie at the time of the 1994 Conference Finals, has looked at times like his old self with only one bad outing back in the Florida series early in the playoffs. Lundqvist has continued to be the backbone of the Rangers’ team at all times and will have to be great, as he usually is, for New York to advance to the next round.
In any event, both Conference Finals are shaping up to memorable. If the Coyotes win, it will be their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, and that should only help motivate the city to keep the team in Glendale. If the Kings turn out on top, it will be a Cinderella story of the lowest seeded team that rose above expectations to make it to the Finals. As for the Rangers and Devils series, it seems to have the making of another unforgettable matchup. No matter how it actually turns out, it will always have that dramatic luster as one team will go on to the Stanley Cup Finals while the other goes back home an early summer. Stay tuned for an exciting few weeks.
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