After a wild three rounds of playoff hockey that featured seven Game 7s and a plethora of dramatic, heart-stopping finishes, the 2014 Stanley Cup Final has officially arrived.
And what a matchup it will be for the NHL.
The championship series will feature two of the largest media markets in the country, as the Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers take on the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings are comfortable playing for the Cup, having reached the final twice in the last three seasons. The organization claimed its first Stanley Cup in 2012 when it beat the New Jersey Devils in six games. Meanwhile, the Rangers will make their first trip to the Final since 1994, when they beat the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to claim their fourth Cup in team history.
The matchup will be immensely competitive, and two factors will decide the series: winning on the road and riding a hot goalie.
The Kings have home ice, thanks to edging the Rangers by four points in the regular season (100 to 96). But that shouldn’t faze New York. No team in the Eastern Conference had more road wins during the regular season than the Rangers. The team won 25 of 41 games on the road, and only the Colorado Avalanche (26) had more road victories in the NHL.
For Los Angeles, playing on its home ice doesn’t give the team much of an advantage. The Kings were one of only two teams to finish the regular season with identical records home and away (23-14-4).
Both the Rangers and Kings have managed to advance to the Final despite four home losses in the first three rounds. Yet Los Angeles found enough comfort on the road Sunday night to win a Game 7, in overtime, against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center.
Remarkably, the Kings enter the Final having won three consecutive Game 7s, all on the road.
This series features two of the NHL’s top goaltenders in New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick.
Thanks largely to Quick’s efforts, the Kings led the NHL during the regular season in goals against, giving up just 2.05 per contest. The Rangers weren’t far behind, however, as Lundqvist helped New York finish fourth in the same statistic (2.32).
Quick hasn’t been as sharp during the postseason as he was during the regular season. He has given up at least two goals in eight straight games, including 13 in the last three contests. But he has, for the most part, stepped up with the series on the line. In the quarterfinals against San Jose, he gave up just three goals over the final three games. Quick will need to regain this form to help the Kings oust the Rangers.
Lundqvist has been the most impressive goalie in the NHL this postseason with a glowing .928 save percentage. He did not allow a goal in the Game 6 series-clinching victory over Montreal in the Eastern Conference Final and allowed just three goals in the final three games against Pittsburgh to allow the Rangers to come back from a 3-1 series deficit.
Lundqvist will need to significantly outplay Quick in this series to give the Rangers an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. According to Yahoo! Sports’ Greg Wyshynski, the New York goalie is the Rangers’ best chance to win the series.
The Kings have played the maximum number of games possible in the postseason thus far. They have played seven games in each series, winning the decisive Game 7 on the road each time. They haven’t had much time to rest, but their impressive ability to stay alive and prevent elimination can’t be overlooked. If the team can push past mental and physical fatigue, they should be in good shape to come out on top.
Lundqvist will outplay Quick in the Final, which will keep the Rangers in the series and force the Kings to play a fourth consecutive Game 7. But Los Angeles’ trio of Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar will provide just enough offense to make the difference.
Prediction: Kings in 7
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