By Daniel Friedman
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It takes four wins, four times, to get your name on that beautiful trophy, that is the most classic piece of silverware in sports. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s all about. This is the Stanley Cup.
That is how Bob Cole, a CBC Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play legend, once described the extraordinary sequence of events that is the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s been 121 years since Lord Stanley of Preston first awarded the $48.67 decorative punch bowl and 88 since it became the NHL’s de facto championship prize.
On Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers will line up for the opening face-off at Staples Center and continue that long-enduring tradition.
The Blueshirts have put together their own collection of Cups (four), the most recent of which was obtained in 1994. The Kings just started working on theirs. In 2012, they won it all for the first time in franchise history, and they’re hoping to add a second within the next few weeks.
For the players on both sides, it’s all about winding up on the right side of the handshake line. But for the league, this year’s title round is already a decisive victory. After all, the Kings and Rangers play in the two biggest media markets in the U.S.
This has to be what the NHL envisioned in 1967, when it expanded to six new locales — including Los Angeles.
If you’re a hockey conspiracy theorist, this is the Stanley Cup Final you’ve been waiting for.
At any rate, this will be a fun series. There’s no shortage of storylines here, no shortage of intriguing matchups — “King” Henrik Lundqvist vs. the Kings, Marian Gaborik going up against his former employer and Drew Doughty vs. Ryan McDonagh, among others.
But how do the Kings and Rangers stack up on the ice? Let’s take a closer look.
The Rangers have been getting the job done with timely scoring and have been able to do so by limiting their opponents to 2.25 goals-per-game in the playoffs. Their depth is on the wings, with Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello.
It’s a different story down the middle, however. The Blueshirts do not have a true No. 1 center, though they do have three solid options in Brad Richards, Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard.
The Rangers might be timely on offense, but the Kings are deadly, averaging 3.48 goals-per-game in the postseason. Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter should have to share the Conn Smythe Trophy at this point; that’s how good they’ve been. This team rolls four lines and can be downright unstoppable at times.
Los Angeles has a clear-cut advantage offensively. A line-by-line comparison really puts things in perspective:
NYR LINE 1: Chris Kreider – Derek Stepan – Rick Nash
LAK LINE 1: Marian Gaborik – Anze Kopitar – Dustin Brown
NYR LINE 2: Carl Hagelin – Brad Richards – Martin St. Louis
LAK LINE 2: Jeff Carter – Tanner Pearson – Tyler Toffoli
The Kings have a significantly better top six, regardless of who is centering those two lines. Gaborik has been red-hot and so has the trio known as the “That 70s Line.”
NYR LINE 3: Benoit Pouliot – Derick Brassard – Mats Zuccarello
LAK LINE 3: Dwight King – Mike Richards – Justin Williams
The third line is essentially a tossup, though I’d give a slight edge to L.A.’s because Williams has been incredibly clutch, and that line as a whole has combined for more points (34) than New York’s has (28).
NYR LINE 4: Dominic Moore – Brian Boyle – Derek Dorsett
LAK LINE 4: Kyle Clifford – Jarret Stoll – Trevor Lewis
I do think the Rangers have the better fourth line, but, overall, it’s just not even close. Even more alarming is that the Kings have scored more goals against better goaltending (Antti Niemi, John Gibson, Jonas Hiller, Corey Crawford) than the Blueshirts have against worse netminders (Ray Emery, Steve Mason, Marc-Andre Fleury, Dustin Tokarski).
“Yeah, but the Rangers are better defensively!” you’ll say.
I see your argument, and I raise you a Selke Trophy candidate in Kopitar, as well as Brown and Mike Richards. This team can play any way you want it to, and is effective in all situations.
Both teams are exceptional without the puck. The Rangers have a better top-three (McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal), but the Kings have enough defensive depth to pose an equal threat. I’ll take Alec Martinez and Matt Greene as my third pairing over John Moore/Raphael Diaz and Kevin Klein.
Additionally, holding the fort against L.A.’s heavy arsenal will be a major defensive challenge for the Blueshirts. Do they put McDonagh out there against the Kopitar line or the “That 70s Line?” That could be a significant matchup issue.
I give the Kings the edge because their defense is a bit more versatile and because, ultimately, they have the better anchor in Doughty.
Beyond McDonagh, New York doesn’t really have anyone who can play well defensively and chip in with some offense, whereas Los Angeles has Doughty, Martinez, Jake Muzzin and Slava Voynov.
Those four players have 43 points, combined. The entire Rangers defense has 35.
I don’t think there’s any doubt as to which team has the upper hand between the pipes. Lundqvist is the best goaltender on the planet, whether he wins this series or not.
He’s better than Jonathan Quick, but by how much? Well, that depends on whom you ask. These days, the “in” thing to say is that Quick is overrated and rather average, because math.
You want numbers? I’ll give you numbers. How about 2.27 and .922, Quick’s career playoff goals-against average and save percentage? How about 1.41/.946, 1.86/ .934 and 2.86/.906, his postseason stats over the last three years, respectively?
One of these things is not like the others. I wonder which numbers are more indicative of his talent level.
And why even bother mentioning that Quick faced the fifth (Sharks), second (Ducks) and seventh (Blackhawks) ranked offenses in the NHL? Why on earth should that matter?
If you’re not factoring that in, you’re doing it wrong. I’d like to see any goalie put up stellar numbers in 21 games against those three teams.
But forget the numbers for a moment. Go back and watch Quick’s performance during that 2012 Cup run or the Sochi Olympics and then tell me you still think he’s average.
I double-dare you. Actually, I triple-dare you.
Quick is an elite goalie and I expect him to rise to the occasion, which is what he’s done throughout his career. Lundqvist is better, but not by enough to make a ginormous difference in this series. Both are capable of stealing the show, and both probably will at one point or another in the coming days.
That said, the edge goes to the Rangers. Lundqvist is better. I suspect his stats won’t be as good against this potent Kings offense, but if anyone can shut them down, it’s him.
Alain Vigneault has made tremendous strides as a head coach since coming over from Vancouver, and I admit I was wrong about him. I was skeptical when he was first hired but he’s proven himself here in these playoffs. He’s a fine bench boss.
That having been said, Darryl Sutter is the superior coach. He’s the better strategist and just knows exactly which buttons to push and when to push them. If Detroit’s Mike Babcock is the NHL’s best coach, then Sutter is right there with him. I think they’re on equal footing now.
This will be a hard-fought series, but I have the Kings beating the Rangers in six games. Los Angeles is better offensively, has a slight edge on defense and has an elite puck-stopper, even if he’s not the better one in this series. I think they have more game-breakers and more depth, and I believe they’ll be hoisting the Stanley Cup for the second time in the last three years.
I’m also not buying into the notion that New York has the advantage because the Kings are fatigued. L.A. has played 21 games; the Rangers have played 20.
Also, the fact that the Kings went to overtime in Game 7 of the conference finals means absolutely nothing. Rangers fans should know this, because the Blueshirts won the Cup in ’94 despite needing two overtimes in Game 7 of their conference finals (against New Jersey) to get there.
No matter what happens, this should be a great series. These have been the best playoffs in years, so be sure to cherish them.
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