By Steve Silverman
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The end of their season could be Wednesday night.
That is, if the Rangers don’t begin some kind of Stanley Cup Final resurrection.
If each of the first three games are taken individually, the Rangers appear to be the equal – or at least the near-equal – of the Los Angeles Kings, their hard-nosed Western Conference competitors.
The Rangers’ quickness and speed was on display in Game 1. Their toughness and all-around play made an appearance in Game 2. Their drive and determination was a factor in Game 3, particularly when they outshot the Kings 17-8 in the second period.
But they lost all of those games, and it’s hard for objective viewers to come to the conclusion that the Kings are not the better team.
What the Kings have brought to the Stanley Cup Final has been fairly obvious. They have a core of very good players that includes Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick that are capable of putting their imprint on any game.
However, the Rangers have their own core group of players like Marty St. Louis, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello who are also capable of taking over. Stepan and Zuccarello may not have elite status, but they have been as impressive as any of the Rangers in this spring to remember.
But what has made the Kings so dangerous in the Stanley Cup Final – and the preceding three rounds as well – is that they are loaded with finishers on their roster — and they have actually finished.
Players like Marian Gaborik, Tyler Toffoli, Jake Muzzin, Dwight King, Mike Richards and Tanner Pearson have all stepped up at various moments, and that’s what has made this team so relentless.
Teams can talk about finding a new hero every night during a playoff run, but it generally centers on the play of the superstars. That was the case last year for the Chicago Blackhawks when Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews led the way for their Stanley Cup run. Quick and Kopitar were the architects of the Kings’ run in 2012, while Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas led the way for the Boston Bruins back in 2011.
That said, a “superstar” Justin Williams is not.
But has any player been more valuable in both the Final and the preceding three rounds than Williams? He has eight goals and 16 assists in his 24 postseason games, and he has a playoff-best plus-14 rating. Williams has one goal and six assists in the first three games of the Final.
Williams plays on the Kings’ third line with center Jarret Stoll and King. He is a 32-year-old player who has not exceeded the 30-goal mark since the 2006-07 season when he was a key player for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Williams has not scored more than 22 goals in a season since, and is coming off a 19-goal, 43-point regular season this season.
Nevertheless, Williams is one of the leading candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy that goes to the Stanley Cup playoff MVP. If the series ends Wednesday or Friday in Los Angeles, Williams or Doughty would appear to have the best chance of earning that stellar piece of hardware.
“That’s an award that a lot of NHLers obviously aspire to have,” Williams told reporters on Tuesday. “But at the same time when you’re presented with it, I think a lot of guys just want to put it aside and look to the big jug. That’s pretty much how I can explain it.
“To be even mentioned with these big guys in that conversation is awesome. But, hey, the big one is what matters. Yeah, I want to taste it again,” Williams added.
Williams has given the Kings something they had no right to expect from a third-line player. He has dominated the score sheet while playing hard-nosed defense at the same time. He has given the NHL a blueprint on how a non-superstar can lead a team when the money is on the table.
He has not had to deal with the pressure of having to do it on his own, and perhaps that has been a big reason for his success. That makes it easier for a player to produce.
But it doesn’t explain everything. Williams is simply willing to stick his nose into the high-traffic areas so he can make things happen in the offensive zone. He has paid no attention to his own scouting report; he has simply gone out and played at 100 percent on every shift he has skated in the playoffs.
He has produced unexpected numbers, and that’s what winning is all about.
Is it too late for the Rangers to stop Williams and his teammates? The clock is ticking.
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