In a series that was the best I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in overtime in game seven of the Western Conference Final to move on to face the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Western Conference, in terms of elite teams, is clearly the better side, but the way the Rangers are gelling, this is not going to be an easy series for the Kings. New York is playing with tremendous emotion, they have excellent speed, and Henrik Lundqvist is money in the cage. Los Angeles brings size, “deep” depth at forward, and a never say die mentality.
Let’s take a look at the match-up in terms of offense, defense, goaltending, coach, and intangibles.
Offense: The Kings lead the NHL in goals for per game in the post season, at 3.48 while New York is 8th at 2.70. Los Angeles has an excellent top six crew of forwards and the bottom six is as good, if not better, than any team in the league. Coach Darryl Sutter has a talented group of players that really filled its’ biggest need with the Marian Gaborik acquisition at the trade deadline (In a related story, Kings GM Dean Lombardi is wanted on felony robbery charges in the state of Ohio). Justin Williams, after the Kings won a thrilling series with the Blackhawks, called “Gabby” the missing piece for LA. He was dead on, since adding an offensive talent like #12 allowed Sutter to balance his lineup. The Kings survived a series of 0 goals from their best offensive player, Anze Kopitar, in the Western final, so that tells you how deep this crew of Kings forwards is. Mike Richards is mostly playing on the bottom two lines, and he’s a second line center on many NHL clubs. The Kings “That 70′s line” of Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter, and Tanner Pearson brings speed and energy. Carter was amazing in the series against the Blackhawks and is a big reason the Kings have a chance to win their 2nd Cup in three years. New York has not scored a lot of goals and Martin St. Louis is their points leader with 13 in 20 games. Chris Kreider has come in to give New York a shot in the arm on offense and he has 10 points in 10 games. The Rangers will rely heavily on his speed and that of guys like Carl Hagelin and Matt Zuccarello. Simply put, though, the Rangers don’t score a lot of goals. Their power play is operating at a 13+% level while Los Angeles is cruising at 25+%. In addition, the Kings can throw four interchangeable lines at you while the Rangers struggle to find a fourth unit. Advantage: Heavily for the Kings.
Defense: The Rangers have a very good top four defense in Ryan McDonough, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Anton Stralman. Their third pair of John Moore and Kevin Klein is solid too. New York’s deep defense allows Coach Alain Vigneualt to not worry alot about exposing one of his pairs to a major mismatch. Any of the three pairs can face high end talent. The question for New York is what pair do they put against the Kopitar line and which one gets the Carter line? I’d imagine we see 27 and 5 go against Kopitar, Gaborik and Brown while Staal and Stralman get the 70′s line, at least initially. As for the Kings, Drew Doughty is the best defensemen in the NHL and he’ll log a ton of minutes. Doughty will make some mistakes but he’ll more than make up for that with numerous “how’d he do that type of plays?” The questions, though, for LA come with the rest of their crew. The injury to Robyn Regehr has been huge and getting Willie Mitchell back in game two against Chicago was very important. Mitchell and Doughty are great penalty killers. Slava Voynov elevated his game in the Blackhawks series and along with Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Matt Greene, they are key to Los Angeles’ ability to win. Will the Rangers speed be too much for those guys? Somehow the Kings were able to overcome Chicago’s speed up front, but the Rangers are likely faster. However, the Rangers forwards don’t have the high end skill like Chicago had with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp. The Kings, however, are one injury away from the slow footed Jeff Schultz being inserted in the lineup. Advantage: Rangers, because of their balance and depth.
Goaltending: Does it get any better than Jonathan Quick vs. Henrik Lundqvist? These are the best goalies in the NHL going head to head for Lord Stanley. Amazingly, they both play different styles. Quick is far more aggressive and moves around much more than King Henrik. Lundqvist is the ONLY goalie in the league who can pull off the “deep in the net” style that he employs. That allows him to rarely be out of position on shots. The Rangers defense knows how #30 is going to play and they are a solid defensive unit. The Rangers are 2nd in the playoffs in goals against yielding 2.25 a game while the Kings are more leaky, at 2.86 per contest (9th overall). But those stats speak more to the style of play and defense of the teams than the net minders. Los Angeles has run into issues when they turn the puck over in the neutral zone, and that has led to a lot of odd man rushes against. Sutter must limit those against a fast Rangers club. Both goalies have had strong outings and also some poor ones, mostly because the team in front of them has struggled, at times. Overall, the Rangers have been more consistent, but they haven’t played the high end talent that Los Angeles has faced in San Jose, Anaheim, and then the 2013 Cup Champion Blackhawks. Advantage: Neither team, goaltending is a dead heat.
Coaching: I was not a John Tortorella fan and when they canned the fiery bench boss and replaced him with Vigneault, I expected marked improvement from New York. Did I think it would translate into a Stanley Cup Final run? Absolutely not. But give credit to the new bench boss (and GM Glen Sather too for some “ballsy” moves behind the bench and with personnel). He managed to survive a terrible schedule early in the post season and rally from a 3-1 hole against Pittsburgh. He’s doing a super job. Sutter is in an elite coach. He maintains an even keel so his team doesn’t get too high or low emotionally and he is a master tactician. Most other coaches would be golfing by now after facing a 3-0 hole in the opening round, but Sutter, assistant coach John Stevens, and the rest of the staff found a way to turn it around, mostly by fixing their poor neutral zone play. Sutter has a keen sense of who has it rolling on a given night and who just doesn’t have it. That’s why guys will move up and down the line-up. He somehow was able to win against the Ducks with both Regehr and Mitchell out, that speaks volumes to the coaching given that that they won with a guy who played the entire season in the AHL in Schultz. Advantage: Los Angeles.
Intangibles: Ever since St. Louis’ mom passed away unexpectedly, the Rangers have been a different team. Anyone who has played hockey, at any level, knows that it is a team game that requires intensity and an emotional commitment. New York clearly has that and throw Dominic Moore’s personal situation into the mix as well. The Rangers are on a mission. On the other hand, the Kings have won three game seven’s on the road, a feat that has never been done before in NHL history. They came back from a three game hole in the first round and were down 3-2 against the Ducks and survived. They were losing 2-0 early in game seven against the Hawks and scraped out a W. One thing that favors LA is the travel schedule. While the Rangers sat for days waiting to figure out who they would play, once they finally did they had to fly cross country to California. So I think that negates any rest they received. Both teams have played a lot of hockey. Advantage: Slight edge to Kings due to home ice.
So I think this is going to be an excellent series, but it will be lower scoring. It will be hard to top the Chicago-LA Western Final, no doubt. Both teams could win this thing, especially if the Kings can’t get net presence on Lundqvist. But I think the Kings will find a way and overcome a Rangers team that seems to keep improving.
The Pick: Despite the fact that broadcaster Kenny Albert and Rangers assistant GM, Jim Schoenfeld, are some of my favorite people in hockey, it’s Los Angeles in 6.