‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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New York vs. L.A. Two major markets. East Coast vs. West Coast. And, of course, the matchup of two supremely-talented goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick.
This is a series that is as mouth-watering as a New York strip steak found in high-end Manhattan restaurants — or, depending on your preference, the superior fast food found on the West Coast.
Ahead of Game 1, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has stressed that the Blueshirts are the underdogs.
“I would probably say that there were a lot more people — experts — that were picking Pittsburgh than were picking the Rangers,” Vigneault said following Monday’s practice. “Going against Montreal, other than a few New York reporters, everybody else across Canada (said) it was Montreal in four or five.
“So throughout these playoffs — and it’s not going to change now, we’ve been the underdog — but what we’ve done is focused on how we play and what we need to do on the ice.”
Yet, in the same press conference, Vigneault boldly said that he likes the Rangers’ chances.
“Even though a lot of people aren’t going to give us a chance, I like our chances,” Vigneault said. “I like our group. I like our focus. I like the way we compete.”
RANGERS ARE RECHARGED AND LUNDQVIST IS RIDING A HOT STREAK; QUICK IS SLUMPING
There are plenty of reasons for New Yorkers to be optimistic that their Rangers could lift their first Stanley Cup in 20 years. The Rangers are faster than the Kings, deeper on the blue line and better rested. Vigneault’s Blueshirts will have had six days to recharge their batteries ahead of Wednesday’s Game 1.
The Kings emptied their tanks in an epic even-game series against the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks. Having won Game 7 in overtime, Los Angeles is the first team in playoff history to play the maximum 21 games and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
New York also has a significant edge standing between the pipes. Lundqvist is riding a hot streak into the playoffs. He boasts a 2.03 goals-against average and a .928 playoff save percentage, while Quick has posted ugly numbers these playoffs. The usually-dependable Quick is carrying an inflated 2.86 GAA and below-average .906 save percentage. Quick comes into the series having surrendered four-or-more goals in each of his past three games.
The big question everyone is asking is whether Quick can rebound from a draining series against the Blackhawks. He’s had some brutal games throughout L.A.’s run, but this is also an individual who won the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy and is fully capable of matching Lundqvist in a showdown duel.
KINGS ARE PHYSICALLY STRONGER AND DEEPER AT CENTER
Yet, the biggest difference between these two teams is the Kings’ advantage down the middle at center. The Rangers lack the size and strength possessed by L.A. centers Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarett Stoll and Mike Richards. This will cause all kinds of matchup problems for the Rangers.
Kopitar and Carter are mountainous men, both standing above 6-foot-3 and weighing over 210 pounds. They both skate like the wind, are super creative and can snipe it with the best of them on the planet. Kopitar is a true all-situation player and is dominant in all aspects of the game. Fourth-liner Richards would be a No. 2 center on most teams. That speaks volumes about the Kings’ outstanding depth at center.
Los Angeles has won 52.9 percent of playoff face-offs, while the Rangers have won 47.5 percent of playoff draws.
The Rangers are all about playing a track-meet style with their breakaway speed and tendency for stretch passes, but the Kings have the big bodies that can take away space and frustrate the Rangers’ playmakers.
L.A. IS LOADED WITH SCORERS
Take a look at the top five playoff points leaders: Kopitar, Carter, Patrick Kane, Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams. Four out of five are Kings. Of course, Kane is eliminated.
The Kings are averaging 3.48 goals per game throughout the playoffs. That’s a scary thought for Rangers fans, even considering New York’s stout and fearless defensive pairs – McDonagh-Girardi, Staal-Stralman and John Moore-Klein. Moore will serve the final game of his two-game suspension in Game 1. Raphael Diaz will play on the left side of Klein in the series opener.
Kopitar might have the best hands in the league. It’s hard to understand why he does not get the attention of other NHL superstars. Kopitar leads all players with 24 playoff points. He has everything — size, strength, shiftiness, tremendous vision, defensive composure and those “sick mitts.”
Ex-Ranger Gaborik leads all playoff performers with 12 goals. He’s added a much-needed element of speed and finesse to the Kings. You know he’s going to be playing with a point to prove given the way his Rangers’ career ended. Former Rangers head coach John Tortorella never allowed Gaborik to be himself and let his natural tools shine. Instead, Tortorella forced Gaborik into learning unfamiliar defensive concepts and turned off his hockey brain. Tortorella won the power struggle and Gaborik was shipped to Columbus.
Drew Doughty is the only defenseman who has enjoyed a finer playoffs than top Rangers blue-liner Ryan McDonagh. Doughty is a big reason why the Kings’ power play is clicking at an unbelievable 25.4 success rate. He leads all players this playoffs with nine power-play points, and has a knack for scoring clutch goals.
The Rangers have scored 2.7 goals per game, but one Ranger who can have a big say in the outcome of this series is Rick Nash.
X-FACTOR FOR THE RANGERS: RICK NASH
Nash has been unfairly maligned throughout the playoffs because he’s only scored three goals in 20 playoff games. Despite his lack of goal-getting, Nash has been playing a valuable role for the Blueshirts. His possession numbers have been outstanding, and he’s quietly been a responsible player in all areas of the ice. He has been a solid contributor to New York’s 85.9 percent penalty kill.
The Rangers absolutely need Nash to find his goal-scoring touch. Should Nash reignite and start lighting the lamp with frequency, he can change the opinion of some New Yorkers who criticize him for not getting to the net enough and trying split defenders too often.
X-FACTOR FOR THE KINGS: TANNER PEARSON
Given the wealth of scoring aces like Kopitar, Gaborik, Carter and Williams, Tanner Pearson has a way of sliding under the radar. Some Rangers fans might not be aware of Pearson. Line-mate Tyler Toffoli has captured more attention from pundits than Pearson.
Through 19 playoff games, Pearson has four goals and eight assists for 12 points. He’s a player with excellent instincts and terrific offensive awareness. This might be the series where Pearson becomes a household name.
PREDICTION: KINGS IN 6; DOUGHTY WINS CONN SMYTHE
The Kings have more brute strength, bite and snarl to their game than the Rangers. They’re loaded with scorers and possess an electric power play. If the Rangers lose their discipline and feed L.A.’s power play with opportunities, they will get burned.
Despite Quick’s unusually-poor playoff statistics, he’s capable of turning around his game and rediscovering the form that won him the 2012 Conn Smythe. Lundqvist is the superior netminder, but the gulf between Lundqvist and Quick isn’t far apart when Quick is on his game.
Considering the Kings’ lamp lighters, Quick doesn’t have to be perfect every game. Rangers fans know that anything less than Lundqvist playing at his absolute best will result in the Kings winning this series.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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