Let’s start at the end; the Rangers will beat Los Angeles in six games; maybe even five.
It’s easy to figure. The Blueshirts have the better goaltender, superior defense right down to the sixth man (Raphael Diaz) and a better balanced attack.
New York also boasts the hitherto un-unused Secret Weapon (Rick Nash) and the factor you cannot quantify, freshness thanks to an early vanquish of Montreal.
Motivation. Hey, it’s 20 years between Cups for The Big Apple and the troops can feel it. Kings won their mug in 2012; incentive may be a degree less; you never know.
Home-ice “advantage” is nonsense and if you don’t believe me, ask the Blackhawks or the Canadiens. It’s just as well that Alain Vigneault‘s lads open in Tinseltown.
But enough of this shaggy doggerel; let’s get down to more specific specifics, which sounds redundant, but isn’t.
Here we have Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist, as disparate a pair of puck-stoppers that ever graced the NHL. Each has won a Vezina among other epaulets. JQ’s goaltending IQ has not measured up so far in the postseason. Jon has been shaky throughout the playoffs, posting one shutout with a 2.86 average so far. Over his last five games, his save percentage has fallen below .900 three times.
As for The King, he’s not only produced an Emmy Award-winning spate of highlight saves, but has trimmed his goals against average to a skimpy 2.03 while the save percentage is an admirable .928.
For starters, we have the Heavyweight Championship — Ryan McDonagh vs. Drew Doughty; take your pick. Call it a draw until you get into the defensive end where Ryan rules. Paradoxically, his offensive game has soared under AV.
On the other side, Doughty is a top-pair talent. Apart from playing first-pair minutes, he quarterbacks the power play with authority; he’s the Kings’ fifth leading scorer in the postseason and has the speed and shot to do significant damage.
So, how do you stop him? Same as what New York did against Montreal’s P.K. Subban. Give Double D neither time nor space. Not that the Kings’ D begins and ends with DD. Beware of Jake Muzzin, Doughty’s partner. Supposedly, he’s the one who stays behind the blueline, yet Jumpin’ Jake already has five goals and six assists so far in the postseason.
Slava Voynov is remembered for helping torpedo the Devils in the 2012 Final; not to mention my favorite King, Willie (Remember Me In Jersey) Mitchell and Matt Greene, defensively solid.
By contrast, AV’s D assures more defensive balance after McDonagh. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, each the shutdown man on his respective line. Anton Stralman and Kevin Klein have been the back line’s unsung heroes. Yet the depth doesn’t stop there when you consider that (one-more-game-suspended) John Moore and Diaz are playoff competent.
Here’s where L.A. comes on like Gangbusters. Between Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, you got trouble in River City. Not to mention Ole Reliable Justin Williams, who kills when you think he left the craps table. And if you think Mike Richards is washed-up, don’t tell that to The King.
Vigneault’s trick is to throw four lines at Sutter’s sextet with New York’s fourth unit (Brian Boyle, Dom Moore and Derek Dorsett) capable of game-winning as in the clincher at The Garden last Thursday. The Rangers’ first line has neatly evolved since Chris Kreider returned along with Nash and Derek Stepan.
The trick here is that AV has what amounts to a pair of second lines; take your pick: A) Marty St. Louis, Carl (Kid Lightning)Hagelin, Brad Richards; B) Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard. Either one can be mistaken for a first line as well.
In playoff hockey, the power play can often be the difference between success and failure. In this series, each team excels in one aspect of special-teams situations, setting up a potent battle. The Kings thrive on the extra-man advantage; in the postseason, they’ve scored 17 power play goals in 21 games. Doughty runs the show from the point and forwards like Gaborik and Carter prevent the defense from keying in on one threat.
Los Angeles has been surprisingly porous on the penalty kill, however, only killing 81.3 percent of their opponents power plays. With that being said though, their PK is incredibly aggressive, which could give the Rangers’ point men fits.
After an abysmal streak of zero goals in 36 opportunities, the Rangers’ power play has gotten back on track. While they’re still not the most dangerous unit in the NHL (converting on 13.6 percent of their power plays), the unit seems to thrive on confidence. If they can pot an early goal against Quick, they certainly have the talent to score serval more.
The Blueshirts are also expert penalty killers, led by gutsy play from Boyle and Hagelin. They’ve killed penalties nearly 86 percent rate and have rebounded from a rough start; after allowing six power-play goals in the first round, the Rangers have only allowed three since.
Although he gains most of his notoriety for his postgame press conferences, Darryl Sutter is a more than capable tactician. He preaches close-checking, defensively responsible hockey, which could give the Rangers somewhat of a hard time. The Blueshirts have struggled to score at times, and, if Sutter intelligently deploys his defensive specialists, the Rangers could find it difficult to ever muster shots against Quick.
Sutter also led the Kings to the cup two years ago with largely the same personnel he has now. Given that experience and the resilience they’ve shown in these playoffs, LA could be a tough out.
On the other hand, Vigneault has energized the Rangers with his positive, offensive hockey. Rather than falling back into a defensive shell and playing like they are afraid to make a mistake, this year’s incarnation of the Blueshirts plays with speed and skill. With that being said though, the team’s power play struggles remain a constant from the previous regime. Given that the Rangers have proven they are defensively solid, the series could shape up to be a battle between Sutter’s defensive organization and AV’s offensive plan.
BEWARE OF THE UNSUNGS
Every Stanley Cup champion needs contributions from unlikely sources and this year’s winner will be no different. For the Kings, Muzzin has thrust himself into the spotlight. Normally overshadowed by his defensive partner Doughty, Muzzin has come through in the clutch. He has scored five goals in the playoffs in addition to playing more than 20 minutes against the other team’s top forwards.
The Kings’ system is also unsung; it’s not flashy, but it works. From captain Dustin Brown on down, their four lines and three defensive pairs all play physical hockey for 60 minutes. Checks are finished, loose pucks are contested, and in the end it all pays dividends. That style could wear the Rangers down if the series stretches on.
For the Rangers, D-Moore has emerged to become a key contributor from the fourth line. While he makes most of his impact on the penalty kill, he has been surprisingly effective in the offensive zone. Flanked by Boyle and Dorsett, the Rangers’ fourth line has a hard working, cycling threat. This was perfectly demonstrated by Moore’s game-winning goal in game six of the Eastern Conference Final; he and Boyle got below the goal line, before Moore moved into the slot to score past Dustin Tokarski.
Richards has also been contributing in a less noticeable way. Former captain Ryan Callahan preferred to lead by example. Since the trade, Brad Richards has taken over the locker room and has become a more vocal leader. Every team needs one unified voice and Richards has stepped into that role. As a player who has hoisted the Cup before, he’s an invaluable voice in the Rangers’ room.