The Stanley Cup Finals are finally upon us, and the Los Angeles Kings will face off against the New York Rangers. It’s been a long road to arrive at this point. Seven of the 14 series went all the way to the full seven games, and five went six games. In other words, there has been great parity. The Montreal Canadiens handled the Tampa Bay Lighting in the first round of the Eastern Conference Finals for the only sweep of the entire playoffs. With all of this parity between teams early in the playoffs, we should expect it now, too.
When looking at the two remaining teams’ trajectories, there are obvious differences but also similarities. Whether it’s the trajectory of this 2013-2014 season or the course of the respective franchises, they differ. For example, the Rangers are one of the Original Six teams but haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1994. In the past decade, New York’s always been good, just not elite. The Kings are a different story. After winning their first Stanley Cup in 2012, they’ve gotten as far as the Western Conference Finals every year since.
History aside, as this championship round gets underway, both teams have a lot to play for. The Rangers are trying to rekindle a flame that has been out for almost 20 years. The Kings are trying to win another title in a matter of a few years, really making a name for their franchise. Either way, here are four match-ups that should play pivotal roles as the finals commence.
1. Jonathan Quick vs. Henrik Lundqvist
In 2012, during the Kings’ Cinderella run through the Western Conference playoffs, Quick was the impetus behind the team’s success. He was that trusting goalie — you know, the guy that makes the saves he should and the saves he shouldn’t. His performance that year earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is given to the MVP of the playoffs. Throughout these playoffs, though, Quick has been anything but. In 21 games, he has allowed 2.86 goals per game and has just a .906 save percentage.
Quick’s opponent, Henrik Lundqvist, has taken a different route to the finals. His 2.03 goals allowed per game ranks sixth of any goalies in the playoffs, and he also has a .928 save percentage. While it’s easy to look at stats and say “this player has better numbers in these categories, so he must be playing better,” that isn’t always the case. As far as performance has gone, Lundqvist has kept his team in games they probably shouldn’t have been. That’s the difference. The Kings’ top scorers and elite defensemen had to pick up Quick during some rough outings.
But if there’s one thing we know, it’s that Quick plays well under pressure. In back-to-back elimination games versus the Ducks, he allowed just one and two goals, respectively. Looking back at these playoffs, the Kings have come this far with Quick being an insignificant presence. If he returns to his proper form, L.A. will be tough to beat. But if Lundqvist outplays him the whole series, look for New York to come out on top.
2. Special teams
As far as special teams go, the Kings have a clear advantage. Their power play unit has been the best in the playoffs: 17 power play goals is five more than the next closest team. But just as that number stands out, they’ve also allowed the most power play goals (15) of any team. If there’s anybody who can slow down the hot Kings’ power play, it’s the Rangers’ penalty kill. New York has the second best man-down unit in the playoffs, and they’re currently killing penalties at an impressive 85.9-percent clip.
The number to watch for, though, will be the Rangers’ ability to score on the power play. Thus far in the playoffs, it has been a major issue. Despite their 11 power-play goals, New York’s 13.8 percent scoring rate on the power play is one of the worst. It’s not that they aren’t creating chances, either — they’ve had the most chances (81) of anybody. They just aren’t capitalizing. Going into this Stanley Cup Final, the Kings have the clear special teams advantage despite New York’s efficient penalty kill.
3. Kings’ top line vs. Rangers’ defense
Los Angeles has a top line of center Anze Kopitar and wingers Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik. As of now, Kopitar is leading the playoffs with 24 points (five goals and 19 assists) and Gaborik’s 19 points (12 goals and seven assists) are fourth. While Brown checks in tied for 20th with four goals and eight assists, this top line has by far been one of the most consistent and most productive. As the team captain, Brown does more than just litter the stat sheet.
But New York’s defensive corps has been formidable throughout these 2014 playoffs. They are allowing the second fewest goals of any team — 2.25 per game — and match up well with what the Kings’ offense will throw at them. Led by the impressive play of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, the Rangers’ rough, physical style of play will pose difficult yet intriguing matchup issues for L.A. As the race for the cup progresses, just a single line or a single player won’t likely decide the outcome. Kopitar, Brown, and Gaborik tend to lead the Kings by example, though, so if they continue their scoring terror, the Kings will be difficult to stop. Adversely, limiting their influence will certainly be a crushing blow to Los Angeles’ high-powered offensive attack.
4. Each team’s fatigue
It’s not a secret that both the Kings and Rangers have really had to fight their way through these playoffs — literally, in some cases. In terms of numbers, New York has played 20 out of 21 possible games and Los Angeles, 21 out of 21. In other words, the Kings have been through a gauntlet and the Rangers not too far behind. L.A. has come back from being down three games to none in the opening round against the second-seeded San Jose Sharks. Then, after that grueling comeback and a 2-0 lead, they allowed the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks to take three straight, forcing a must-win situation in games six and seven.
The Rangers’ biggest obstacle came in the form of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. After New York took the opening game on the road, the Penguins won the next three, in turn putting New York in a must-win position. And they did. The Rangers knocked off three straight victories to take the series. Needless to say, neither team enters this Stanley Cup final fresh and full of energy. They’re limping in, using the knowledge that just four more wins will bring them a title. If, somehow, someway, this series goes seven games, both squads will be running on fumes. Shifts will get shorter, players more fatigued, and it will come down to whoever wants it more. It’s been a marathon so far: now, it’s just whoever can race to the finish line first.