By Martin Iheke
After 46 days of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey, we finally have our matchup set for the Stanley Cup Finals. It will be the New York Rangers against the Los Angeles Kings. Since the Dallas Stars were eliminated in the first round, I have wanted this matchup to happen for a couple of reasons. First, you have the #1 and #2 markets in the country going head-to-head in a championship series which is something I have not seen before. And second, this is the first time that this matchup will happen for the NHL for their championship series. I think this is a golden opportunity for the league to really showcase themselves and make the sport mainstream again. The two league lockouts in the last decade did not help. The good thing is this has been a very entertaining postseason so far and I do not think the Cup Finals will lack in that department now that you have a NY vs. LA matchup. Unfortunately, Commissioner Gary Bettman cannot make sure that all seven possible games will be televised on NBC. There is no excuse for any of these games to be broadcast on cable, especially when you have the two largest markets in the nation facing off. This is just stupid. The NBA or MLB would not drop the ball on this.
How They got Here
New York Rangers – Defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3, in the first round. Defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, in the second round after rallying from a 3-1 series deficit. Defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 4-2, in the conference finals.
Los Angeles Kings – Defeated the San Jose Sharks, 4-3, in the first round after becoming the fourth team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. Defeated the Anaheim Ducks, 4-3, in the second round after coming back from a 3-2 series deficit. Defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, 4-3, in the conference finals.
Both teams have the ability to roll four lines which is one of the big reasons they are still playing. The Rangers are led by Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. They have a lot speed and are very effective with their forecheck when they can utilize this. For the Kings, they are led by Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Jarrett Stoll and Mike Richards. They have a lot of size, speed and can wear you down physically.
The blue line has been very good for both teams. The Rangers are led by Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman. These guys have done a terrific job of using their speed to slow down the other teams’ top lines and creating offense as well. The Kings’ group has done the same thing. They are led by Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov, Willie Mitchell and Alec Martinez.
What more can you say about the starting goalies for both teams. Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers and Jonathan Quick for the Kings are arguably the two best goaltenders in the league. You cannot go wrong with either one and it is going to be fascinating to see who can outduel the other.
Alain Vigneault is in his first season as head coach for the Rangers. He has done a remarkable job of being able to get his players to buy into his system by utilizing their strengths. Head coach Darryl Sutter is that same way for the Kings and he is in his third season. Both coaches have a calming presence about themselves and both teams reflect that very well.
The Rangers’ power play has been sort of up and down in the postseason thus far. They went through an ugly stretch of not scoring with man advantage in 36 opportunities. Overall, they are 11 for 81 on the job in the playoffs according to NHL.com. Their penalty kill has been a different story with a success rate of 85.9% with the man down which is second best in the postseason according to NHL.com. The Kings have been very good on the power play with a 25.4% success rate which was the best of the four teams in the conference finals according to NHL.com. The penalty kill success rate is not as good as the Rangers with an 81.2% success rate according to NHL.com, but they have been good when they needed to be.
Key to the Series
The key will be the Rangers’ speed against the Kings’ size. The Rangers need to continue to use their speed effectively to give the Kings fits. They do not have size to matchup with them physically. Lundqvist also has to be very good in net to give his team a chance. For the Kings, they have to look at the Rangers as almost a carbon copy of what they just faced in the conference finals against the Blackhawks. To effectively slow down the Rangers, the Kings need to own the neutral zone and not give them any space to operate. Using their size to physically wear down the Rangers will be a big plus. Quick needs to be at his best as well.
The Kings are looking to win their second Cup in three years while the Rangers will be looking to end a two-decade drought of not having won one. Since the Kings will have home-ice advantage in the series, it is probably imperative for the Rangers to at least get a split in the first two games by taking advantage of a tired Kings team that has just finished a grueling seven-game series on top of playing in two other ones.
I expect a long and entertaining series with the Kings winning the Cup in six games.
Game 1: Wednesday June 4th at Los Angeles Kings 7:00pm
Game 2: Saturday June 7th at Los Angeles Kings 6:00pm
Game 3: Monday June 9th at New York Rangers 7:00pm
Game 4: Wednesday June 11th at New York Rangers 7:00pm
Game 5: Friday June 13th at Los Angeles Kings 7:00pm (if necessary)
Game 6: Monday June 16th at New York Rangers 7:00pm (if necessary)
Game 7: Wednesday June 18th at Los Angeles Kings 7:00pm (if necessary)