New York Rangers vs. Los Angeles Kings: Keys to Winning 2014 Stanley Cup Final
Puck drop for the 2014 Stanley Cup final comes Wednesday, and the series features two very different teams going head-to-head for the NHL championship.
The Los Angeles Kings are the big Western Conference powerhouse that is trying to claim a second Cup in three seasons. The New York Rangers are the obvious underdogs that are seeking a first title in 20 years after last appearing in the final in 1994.
They both feature proven veterans. The Rangers have a couple of former champs in ex-Tampa Bay Lightning leaders Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. The Kings return much of the core that claimed it all in 2012.
The goaltenders are equally capable of stealing games or a series. Henrik Lundqvist is looking to create a legacy with the one thing that has escaped him through his Hall of Fame-worthy career. Jonathan Quick is hoping to rebound from an inconsistent postseason to win the only thing that matters.
Here are the keys to victory for both teams.
Key for Los Angeles: Let's Get Physical
Dustin Brown is the runaway leader in hits thrown during the playoffs so far.
Teammates Jarret Stoll and Slava Voynov—not known as the heaviest defender—are ranked third and fourth, respectively. In fact, more than eight of the top 15 in the column are Kings. Two are Rangers.
There's no doubt which team is more physical. The only question is, how aggressive will the Kings be out of the gate?
You can probably bank on them showing plenty of energy despite the fact they played their third Game 7 of these playoffs on Sunday night. A couple of nights off can do wonders.
So does the concept of playing for the Stanley Cup.
It's a necessary ingredient to the Kings' success. It's one of the main reasons why the big, heavy team has been successful in winning three full-length series so far—wearing down opponents over time and capitalizing on opportunities when the hits manifest as fatigue in the opposing players.
Key for New York: Speed Kills
With his combination of speed and size, Chris Kreider might be the most lethal member of the Rangers in the Stanley Cup final.
He is quick, but at 6'3" and 226 pounds, he can also get after the Kings defenders in the corners at high speed.
Other, smaller forwards like Martin St. Louis and Carl Hagelin also have the ability to get the Kings defense backing up rather than moving forward and contributing to the rush. They'll have to be a bit more strategic, though, and try to avoid the bodies in black, white and silver rather than head right at them.
As dangerous as speed is in today's NHL, it can be stymied by strong positioning and punishing hits. Whoever comes out on top of this battle could come away with the series.
Key for Los Angeles: Gaborik's Revenge
It's been a marriage made in heaven for both the Kings and Marian Gaborik.
For Gaborik—the former New York Rangers sniper who fell on tough times in Columbus before the Blue Jackets traded him to Los Angeles at the deadline—the deal has reignited his career as a certified sniper. For the Kings, the added offense has made them even more lethal than they were in the regular season.
Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register knows the pending UFA might not be back in L.A. but suggests we enjoy the ride:
Marian Gaborik may or may not be in L.A. for the long run but he's a perfect fit for the Kings right now.
Finding great chemistry with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown on the top line, Gaborik leads all playoff performers with 12 goals through 21 games.
"Gabby's just a quick sniper," Kopitar said on NHL.com's media-day coverage. "It's pretty much always a safe bet to give him the puck and he's gonna put it in."
"It's been a fun ride," said Gaborik, a pending unrestricted free agent. "First final for me. I just want to take this opportunity and leave everything out there. We've created quite a few chances and I've been fortunate to have some touch with the puck and having goals going in."
Gaborik makes the top line a deadly combination of physicality, defensive responsibility and offensive prowess. It will be very difficult for the Rangers to match any line against it.
Key for New York: Embrace the Underdog Role
As somewhat unexpected Stanley Cup finalists and clear underdogs, the Rangers should be happy they've made it this far. But they should never be satisfied.
They'll say the right things about having nothing to lose and that the pressure is always on the favored team to prove it and win the ultimate prize. However, there is a psychological danger to being an underdog, and that's the idea that you're not expected to win, so it's OK if you don't.
The Rangers should embrace the underdog role but strive for more than being second fiddle. They need to stay hungry.
They rallied around newcomer Martin St. Louis when his mother died of a sudden heart attack during the second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The emotional situation helped cement the team's unity, and the team has looked very strong ever since, coming back from the 3-1 series deficit against the 2009 Stanley Cup winner.
Against the Kings, the Rangers have to want to win even more than their opponent and be willing to do whatever is needed—block a shot and take a big hit—to make sure they give themselves the best shot at beating a team that is simply better than them on paper.
Key for Los Angeles: Be Special
Clicking at 25.4 percent, the Kings power play has scored 17 times in the playoffs—five more goals than any other team in the postseason.
Meanwhile, the Rangers penalty killing has been tremendous at 85.9 percent, the second-best rate in the playoffs.
Something's gotta give.
For the Kings, winning the special-teams battle is especially important in case their five-on-five scoring drops back to a more familiar regular-season rate.
Key for New York: Keep 'Em Rolling
These two coaches have rolled four lines throughout most of the playoffs. You might think that for the Rangers, which look overmatched against the Kings in terms of depth, it could be a good idea to shorten the bench for the final series.
That would be a bad idea. Playing guys like Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett on the ice for a dozen or so minutes per game keeps Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash and Brad Richards fresher for the late stages of games when they need to make an instant impact.
The fourth line is also the Rangers' best answer to their physical shortcomings against the Kings. All three of those men can mix it up with some of the Kings stars and get their shots in when possible. They're capable of tight checking and won't hurt the Rangers when skating across from the Kings' top players on occasion.
Key for Los Angeles: Get Possessive
The Kings were the top NHL team in the regular season when it came to advanced stats in both Corsi (the plus/minus of shots directed at a net while at even strength) and Fenwick (same as Corsi but discounts blocked shots), according to ExtraSkater.com.
It's a solid theory that the consistent possession numbers are the reason they have been able to raise their scoring output in the playoffs—just a simple boost in shooting percentage.
Keeping the puck away from opponents is also a good way to keep them off the scoresheet.
"Obviously the best defense is to play in their zone," Kings center Anze Kopitar said Tuesday at media day, via NHL.com. "That's how we want to play; hang on to the puck and make plays. I think we've done a good job so far."
The Rangers were no slouches in the fancy stats, either, finishing sixth in the NHL in Corsi and fifth in Fenwick during the regular season, sixth in Corsi in the playoffs and eighth in Fenwick this spring. With balanced scoring through the top three lines, the Kings need to control the play as much as possible.
Key for New York: McDonagh Needs to Leave No Doughty
We've seen plenty of great things from the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh this spring, especially in the second half of his postseason.
With 13 points in 20 playoff games—all in the past 10 contests—he is the Rangers' top dog on defense. But can he raise his game again while playing against the Kings?
Getting points from the back end is a critical component of success in the playoffs, and the Kings have had plenty from Drew Doughty and his partner Jake Muzzin. Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov have chipped in, too.
The Rangers are receiving big contributions from McDonagh, but few others are making a similar impact from the New York blue line. McDonagh will have to prove in this round that he can do it in the biggest series of his professional career the way that Doughty has when the spotlight is on.
Key for Los Angeles: A Quick Reset
Forgotten amid the excitement of winning the series against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference championship is the fact that Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick didn't have a spectacular showing—especially in the last three games.
The Blackhawks put in 13 goals in Games 5, 6 and 7 combined. That's not the kind of goaltending the Kings have come to expect from Quick.
He has actually been inconsistent all spring. He was rattled early against the San Jose Sharks in Round 1, but pulled himself together to help the team come back from a 3-0 series deficit. After allowing a combined 16 goals over those first three games, he let in just five in the next four games.
He faltered just once against the Anaheim Ducks in Round 2, allowing four goals in a single game. That level of play was necessary for the Kings, as they couldn't find a way to be more supportive offensively against the Ducks. In that seven-game series, Quick let 15 pucks get past him.
Los Angeles Times writer Helene Elliott points out the perceived disadvantage for the Kings in the crease:
The pre-series consensus has been that goaltending is an area in which the Rangers might have an advantage, based on Lundqvist’s better numbers in the playoffs.
With a .906 save percentage and 2.86 GAA, Quick's numbers are a far cry from what they were in 2012 (.946 and 1.41). But he is still capable of dominating games if he can keep his aggressive tendencies under control.
"He's one of the best in the league. But we're kind of opposites. He's extremely aggressive. He's like a gymnast out there; all over the place," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said Tuesday, via NHL.com. "But he's so quick. He's so powerful. In the end it's about stopping the puck and he does it really well."
Key for New York: Henrik Must Be King
Easily the worst-kept secret of the series: Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has to be the Stanley Cup final series MVP for the Rangers to take home the NHL title.
As King Henrik goes, so do the Rangers. Without their star goaltender, they would never have made it out of the first round, never mind all the way to the final. In Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1, he stopped 10-of-11 shots while the pressure was on. The lone goal was all he allowed on 27 shots to post a .963 save percentage on the night.
He managed to frustrate the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2, allowing 13 goals in that seven-game series and performing at his best in the deciding contest. The Pens peppered him with 36 shots but got just one puck past him. His save percentage was a staggering .972.
In the clincher against the Montreal Canadiens, Lundqvist earned a shutout. It may have been his team's best defensive effort in front of him, as the Rangers allowed just 18 shots, but the Swede certainly did his part.
It will take an all-world effort to keep the Kings at bay with plenty of potential goal scorers on the other side, including former teammate Marian Gaborik, former rival Jeff Carter and the quietly dangerous Anze Kopitar.
Lundqvist's playoff save percentage sits at .928, third best among playoff starters and well above counterpart Jonathan Quick's .906. With the Kings giving Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford plenty of trouble in the Western Conference final—scoring 26 times and managing at least 25 shots on goal in all but one of the seven games—Lundqvist will need to be his team's best player nearly every night.
Steve Macfarlane has covered the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. Follow him on Twitter @macfarlaneHKY.
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