By Steve Silverman
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The New York Rangers got the break they needed when Alec Martinez’s wrist shot from the point deflected off Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy and into the net past goaltender Corey Crawford.
That goal gave the Western Conference championship to the Los Angeles Kings and put them in the Stanley Cup finals against the Broadway Blueshirts.
The Kings are a formidable team with an abundance of size, speed and skill. They appear to be a better team than the Rangers and they are clear-cut favorites in just about every series assessment you can find. However, the Rangers lucked out in their matchup because the Blackhawks have a certain magic to their game that would have been nearly impossible to overcome. The Kings don’t have magic coursing through their veins.
The Blackhawks have a pair of gold-dust twins in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews who would have been at their best when all the money was on the table. Kane is unstoppable when he has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, while Toews may be the best all-around player in the game.
The Blackhawks would have been fully motivated to become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. They desperately wanted the dynasty label.
The Rangers have escaped that hazard and get to play a team that was good enough to stop the Blackhawks.
The Rangers are going to throw cold water on the Kings and find a way to come up with the upset in this series.
The Rangers have the edge when it comes to speed, quickness and goaltending. The Kings are bigger and stronger, and they have plenty of skill. But the Rangers may just bollix the Kings with their ability to win footraces throughout the series.
Chris Kreider, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Ryan McDonagh are going to cause fits for some of the Kings’ bigger players. Certainly, the Rangers will have problems when they get tagged by Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Dwight King and Trevor Lewis, but the Kings are about to learn that they can’t hit what they can’t catch.
This is not to insinuate that the Kings are slow. They have plenty of talented players who can skate well in Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Mike Richards, but they are not as fast as the Rangers.
Then there’s the little matter of goaltending. Two years ago, Jonathan Quick was the story as he led the Kings to the Stanley Cup with a fantastic run that included a 1.41 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and three shutouts. This year, he has not been the same goalie. He has a 2.86 GAA, .906 save percentage and just one shutout.
Quick gave up at least four goals in each of the final three games against the Blackhawks, and if Chicago had scored the overtime goal, the Los Angeles goalie would have been fitted for goat horns.
Henrik Lundqvist has performed significantly better in this year’s playoffs than Quick. “The King” has a 2.03 GAA, a .928 save percentage and one shutout, which came in the Eastern Conference clincher against the Montreal Canadiens last Thursday night.
If the Rangers are going to win this series, that game against the Habs must be the baseline performance for all the games in the Stanley Cup finals. The record book shows the Rangers won that game 1-0, but the Blueshirts won nearly every race and puck battle. They dominated the game on the ice and they would have won by four goals had Montreal rookie Dustin Tokarski not been other-worldly between the pipes.
The Kings earned their spot in the Stanley Cup finals with a come-from-behind road win in overtime against the Blackhawks.
They are drained as the championship series begins, and no matter what Darryl Sutter mumbles and his players tell the media, they will not be at their emotional best for Game 1 on Wednesday.
The Rangers know just what to do in those situations. They trounced the Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals at the Bell Centre after the Habs upset the Boston Bruins in the seventh game on the road in the second round.
Look for history to repeat itself as the Rangers will come out flying, build an early lead and come away with a surprising win.
Lundqvist will probably steal a few more games along the way. That means the Rangers will have to find a way to win one more game. They will not fall short.
New York was on the precipice of defeat in the second round when it trailed Pittsburgh 3-1. The Rangers had played miserable hockey up until that point.
But that’s when the fates intervened as St. Louis lost his mother suddenly and the future Hall of Famer turned that tragedy into inspiration. His new teammates did everything they could to comfort St. Louis, and they also have played stellar hockey since.
The Rangers are 7-2 since that turning point, and it’s not about to stop now. The Kings are favored and exhausted, and the Rangers are going to party like it’s 1994.
The Rangers win this series in seven games.
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