By Steve Silverman
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The Los Angeles Kings are going to be a much better team when they take the ice at the Staples Center on Saturday night.
The Rangers have an advantage over their hosts with their speed and quickness, and that edge was exaggerated in the first half of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final because the Kings were still feeling the impact of their seven-game series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings will be much faster at the start of Game 2, and they will give the Rangers a much more difficult time when it comes to winning races for the puck and establishing an offensive zone presence. The Rangers will still have an edge in speed, but it won’t be as pronounced as it was Wednesday night when Benoit Pouliot and Carl Hagelin turned on the after burners and scored first-period goals.
The loss in Game 1 was painful and significant, but don’t think for a second that the deficit can’t be overcome. If the Rangers are going to win Game 2 – or any of the games in Los Angeles – the Blueshirts are going to have to come with more grit in all three zones.
They are not going to match the Kings in that area, but they certainly have to do a lot better than they did in the third period of Game 1, when they were outshot 20-3.
The Rangers are going to need their leadership to step up and deliver. There’s little doubt that they will get what they need from Henrik Lundqvist in goal and Ryan McDonagh on defense. It’s also a very good bet that Dan Girardi will be on top of his game after his giveaway led to Justin Williams’ game-winning goal in overtime in Game 1.
The question of stepping up and leading the way revolves around the line of center Derek Stepan, left wing Chris Kreider and right wing Rick Nash. This should be the Rangers’ best line because of its size, speed and talent, but Alain Vigneault did not get much from this trio in Game 1.
It’s not about effort, it’s about effectiveness. Not only were Stepan, Kreider and Nash held off the scoreboard, each player registered a minus-1 rating in the game. The advanced stats point to even more of a problem. Stepan had a 42.3 Corsi for percentage, while Kreider was just marginally better at 45.8. Nash, who was quite active in the first period, was the best of the trio with a 46.2 mark.
The longer the game progressed, the more it tended to be played in the Rangers’ zone when Stepan, Kreider and Nash were on the ice. That has to change Saturday night.
When the Rangers have struggled during the playoffs, Nash has been the target. There’s little doubt that he has been a disappointment throughout much of his run with the Rangers, and has fallen particularly short this spring. Through 21 playoff games, he has three goals and seven assists. His 4.4 shooting percentage is galling.
Everyone would like to see Nash take his 6-foot-4, 215-pound body and station himself in front of the net and cause havoc for the Kings’ defense and goalie Jonathan Quick. That is not going to happen. Nash may be big and have excellent skating skills, but he does not play a big man’s game. He avoids the punishment that power forwards have to take in order to be effective.
He is not going to score the kind of clutch goal that Williams scored for the Kings on Wednesday night. Nash likes to float around the offensive zone and attack with quickness – not power and strength.
However, Stepan and Kreider don’t have to play the same kind of game. If the Rangers are going to assert themselves, they need these two to win the puck battles that their linemate tends to avoid.
Stepan and Kreider also like to use their quickness advantage to make things happen, but that’s not going to be enough when the Rangers line up against the Kings.
The only team that is similar to the Kings in the Eastern Conference is the Boston Bruins, and that battle did not go well for the Rangers during last year’s playoffs or this year’s three regular season games.
But the battle has to be joined, and the Rangers now know that speed alone won’t earn them four victories in the Stanley Cup Final. It might get them one win and Lundqvist is good enough to steal them two more.
At some point in this series, the Rangers are going to have to beat the Kings at their own game at least once. They are going to have to roll up their sleeves and go to work. They will have to outmuscle the bigger and stronger team.
The line of Stepan, Kreider and Nash is not just there to go along for the ride. Stepan and Kreider must find a way to assert themselves because it seems certain that Nash lacks the gumption to stand up to the Kings.
If they don’t and Nash continues to float along, this remarkable Stanley Cup opportunity could disappear rather quickly.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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