The overriding question about the Stanley Cup Final as we head into Game One tonight is a simple one: Can The King beat The Kings?
If the New York Rangers want to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their historic 1994 Cup triumph with another championship, it will be all about riding the play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. If the Los Angeles Kings want to win their second Cup in the last three years, it will be primarily about unlocking the secrets to beating Lundqvist that Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal mostly could not.
Among NHL goaltenders this postseason, Lundqvist is tied for first in wins (12) and save percentage (.928), and ranked second in goals-against average (2.03). He gives the Rangers an appreciable advantage over Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, who has oddly pedestrian postseason numbers (.906 and 2.86) but has benefited from major offensive support.
Lundqvist had a horrible start to this season, like his entire team did. In their first year under coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers were 2-6 in their first eight games and last overall in the NHL standings at that point in the season. They slowly recovered, although it pretty much took Lundqvist into the new year to regain the form that’s put him on the pedestal with Ed Giacomin and ’94 Cup winner Mike Richter as the best between the pipes the Blueshirts have ever had.
In the playoffs, however, Lundqvist has been phenomenal. He won Game Sevens against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Then he put together a shutout in the Game Six Eastern Conference clincher against Montreal after getting pulled in the 7-4 loss to the Habs in Game Five, his worst showing of the spring.
If there’s a goalie that can steal a series, Lundqvist is it. And he’ll have to be sharp to deal with the league’s top offense in the postseason.
Oddly enough, the Kings were the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs this year, finishing 25th in the NHL with 206 goals or 2.51 goals per game. Hard to remember them struggling to score but do you remember the final game of the Darcy Regier-Ron Rolston era in Buffalo? It was a shootout victory over the Kings here in November in which the visitors scored only two goals on 45 shots.
There’s been no such trouble in the playoffs. The Kings have 73 goals in 21 games, a stunning average of 3.48 per contest. In playing just one more game over the first three rounds, they’ve scored 19 more goals than the Rangers. The Kings have 50 goals in 5-on-5 situations.
The postseason numbers among individuals are pretty eye-popping. Anze Kopitar has 24 points (including 19 assists). Jeff Carter has nine goals and 13 assists while Marian Gaborik has 12 goals and 19 points. Game Seven magician Justin Williams has seven goals and 11 assists and defenseman Drew Doughty has four goals and 11 assists. No one on the Rangers has more than 13 points in the postseason.
Kopitar, who has clearly ascended to the Jonathan Toews/Patrice Bergeron level of two-way forwards, has points in 17 of the 21 postseason games. Only Wayne Gretzky has more assists in a single playoff year in Kings history, as he had 25 in 1993. And Kopitar has more to give, too. He had no goals in the Western Conference final against Chicago and has just one in the last 14 games. Imagine if he heats up in that area.
While the great offense vs. great goalie is just one item. Here’s what else is running through my mind as we head into the series:
• The Let-Me-Gloat-A-Second Dept: I picked the Kings to win the Western Conference back in our NHL preview section in October (although RIP to my prediction of Pittsburgh joining them this week out of the East). A couple days before the playoffs started, I reiterated the choice of the Kings as a team to watch in the West – even when Chicago was an obvious choice and St. Louis and San Jose were chic picks.
The Kings were the best defensive team in the regular season (just 174 goals) and the wild world of analytics points to them as one of the NHL’s premier puck possession teams, so their offense stood a chance of finding its stride in the postseason and that’s what’s happened. I should have been more in tune with the Rangers’ chances of advancing because their puck numbers are much more Western Conference-like than many of their Eastern Conference foes.
• Fatigue Factor: Can the Kings really be 100 percent ready go to, both mentally and physically, tonight just 72 hours after one of the most arduous series in NHL history was completed? They’re the first team in history to win three straight Game Sevens to get to the Cup final – and won them all on the road, in San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago.
They came back from an 3-0 deficit against the Sharks, a 3-2 deficit against the Ducks and won two games in Chicago (including Game Seven) in which they fell behind, 2-0. That might rate them as one of the mentally toughest teams in NHL history.
But doesn’t it seem plausible they might really not be able to find their legs again until Game Two on Saturday night?
The league gave the Kings a huge break with an elongated schedule. There are a pair of two-day breaks in the series, and Game Seven would not be until June 18. The Kings needed just 20 games to win the Cup two years ago – and they had a 3-0 lead in all four series. A vastly different road this time for sure.
• Experience: The Kings have 17 players on their roster who won a Cup two years ago. The Rangers have Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, who teamed to win one in Tampa in 2004, and no one else has succeeded in this spot. The motivation of playing for St. Louis, who lost his mother last month, has been strong and will continue to be one of the main storylines to follow.
• Scoring trends: The Rangers have gotten a big jump in the playoffs in the first period with a 21-10 advantage in goals. The Kings have ruled in the third period (27-16). No lead has been safe against Los Angeles, be it in a series or a game.
• Special teams: The Kings’ power play is 17 for 67 (25.4 percent) while the Rangers are just 11 for 81 (13.6 percent) and has been woeful at times. The Rangers are slightly better on the penalty kill (85.9 percent to 81.2 percent).
• The pick: Winning Game One is an absolute must for the Rangers. It’s a huge opportunity to get a jump in a series most experts figure they won’t win. The whole scenario reminds me a lot of 1979, when the Rangers went into Montreal and won Game One against a Habs team still drained by its Game Seven overtime win over Boston that got them to the final. Montreal then recovered to win four straight.
I could see the same scenario playing out here. The Kings have too much talent and are too physical for the Rangers to handle. Only if Lundqvist is completely impenetrable or if Quick really struggles can New York stay close.
The Kings celebrated the first Cup in their 45-year history at home in Staples Center in Game Six against New Jersey in 2012. It says here the home fans will get another celebration this year in Game Five.