Stanley Cup Final 2014: Biggest Storylines to Watch in Rangers vs. Kings
Starting Wednesday, hockey fans will be treated to a rare playoff meeting between the two biggest hockey markets in the U.S. This time, it's for the ultimate prize.
The Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers have met just twice before in the postseason, with New York winning both times. The Rangers swept a best-of-three preliminary-round series with two wins in 1979, then delivered a 3-1 victory in a best-of-five matchup in 1981.
It's been a long road to the Stanley Cup Final for both teams this year.
The Kings will have home-ice advantage for the first time after winning three straight seven-game series on the road against the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks.
The Rangers overcame a disastrous start to their season to finish second in the Metropolitan Division. They disposed of the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games each before a six-game Eastern Conference Final win over the Montreal Canadiens.
The Kings are favored in the Final, but in this unpredictable postseason, it might be best to reserve judgment until the games are played.
Here's a look at the biggest storylines of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com.
Hot Tickets in Big Markets
In terms of a high-profile Stanley Cup Final, it doesn't get much better for the NHL than New York vs. L.A. in 2014.
Each team has a cadre of high-profile fans who add star-wattage and a huge population base that drives TV ratings and ticket prices.
According to Nielsen.com, New York and Los Angeles are the top two television markets in the U.S., with potential audiences of 7.46 million TV homes in New York and 5.67 million TV homes in L.A. Even better, neither market has seen much recent success from its higher-profile sports franchises.
At this time of year, the Knicks and the Lakers are expected to dominate the sports pages. This season, they've been on the sidelines, while the Nets and Clippers brought some NBA buzz. There's been plenty of room for coverage of the teams' Cup runs.
If you want to rub shoulders with David Beckham or Will Ferrell in Los Angeles, or John McEnroe or Phil Jackson in New York, Darren Rovell of ESPN.com is reporting that the cheapest available ticket to the Final is $349 in L.A., with face-value prices rising as high as $2,490 at Madison Square Garden. Resale prices are averaging in the $600 range in Los Angeles but more than $1,200 per ticket in Manhattan.
"It seems like everyone is a Rangers fan now," said Jason Berger, partner in AllShows.com (h/t Sports News International), one of New York City's biggest ticket brokers. "The get-in price for the first two games is now higher than the get-in price to the Super Bowl this year."
2 Years vs. 2 Decades
Both the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers are using their last Stanley Cup win as inspiration for this year's playoff run.
For the Kings, the memories go back two years to 2012, when the franchise won its first-ever championship. The Rangers' memories run all the way back to 1994, when Mark Messier and a stacked roster brought the Cup to Broadway for the first time in 54 years.
The 2014 Kings roster boasts 15 returning players from the 2012 Cup-winners. For New York, it's been about integrating the '94 alumni into the festivities as the playoffs have rolled along.
Stephane Matteau scored the famous Game 7 overtime goal that advanced the 1994 Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final and was in the crowd at Madison Square Garden for Game 6 against Montreal. "This year, it's a total surprise, in my opinion," Matteau told Mark Herrmann of Newsday. "But something changed in Game 5 against Pittsburgh. They look so good. Now we have high expectations; before, we didn't have any expectations. The alumni, we're all very proud of them."
The Road Goes Through Columbus
If a Rangers or Kings fan wanted to pack up the car and drive across the country to catch a road game, the route would likely take him right through Columbus, Ohio.
Fitting, since the Blue Jackets have been key trading partners with both of this year's finalists.
The shining star, of course, is the Kings' Marian Gaborik, who leads the playoffs with 12 goals. The soon-to-be unrestricted free agent was acquired from Columbus at the trade deadline with the hope that he'd add a spark to the Kings offense. He has more than risen to the occasion.
Gaborik spent four years in New York before being traded to Columbus at the 2013 trade deadline in a package deal that sent Derek Dorsett, Derick Brassard and John Moore back to the Blueshirts. All three have been key contributors through the Rangers' playoff run, while an injury-plagued Gaborik didn't click in Columbus.
The Kings' Jeff Carter arrived in Los Angeles under similar circumstances, just before the 2012 Cup run. He was dealt to the Blue Jackets from Philadelphia during the summer of 2011 but didn't fit into the system and was shuffled along to the Kings after an eight-month stay with the team.
Finally, the Rangers' Rick Nash was drafted by the Blue Jackets and spent the first decade of his career as Columbus' franchise player. He was moved to the Rangers in a blockbuster deal at the 2012 draft. His arrival on Broadway made Gaborik expendable, but Nash has yet to perform at superstar levels.
Nash just had his best series of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens, posting all three of his playoff goals so far. He has a chance to change his image forever if he can outduel Gaborik during the final round.
Rest vs. Rust
Early in the playoffs, the New York Rangers endured a brutal week of scheduling. They played four games in six nights as they finished off their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games, then met the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The heavy workload almost did them in: The Rangers fell behind the Penguins 3-1 before rallying to win the series.
Now, the Rangers get rewarded for their early efforts. They've been resting since finishing their series with Montreal on Thursday night, while the Los Angeles Kings get just a two-day turnaround after their fight to the finish against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Will the Rangers start the series with renewed vigor, or will the layoff leave them flat? Will the Kings continue to thrive under adversity, or will the effort it took to beat Chicago—and Anaheim and San Jose—leave them spent now that they've finally arrived at the dance?
Which Team Can Go the Distance?
This year's winner of the Stanley Cup will be one of the hardest-working teams in playoff history.
Much has already been made of the fact that the Kings are the first team ever to win three Game 7s on their way to a Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers also set a record this year as the only team—other than this year's Kings—to advance to the Cup Final after winning seven-game series in the first two rounds.
There have been no easy series for the Kings or the Rangers. Before the final event begins, Los Angeles has played 21 games and New York has played 20.
According to NHL.com, only two Cup-winners have ever played as many as 25 playoff games—the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2011 Boston Bruins. If this year's Final reaches six games, the winner is guaranteed to eclipse that number.
Two teams in history have played 26 games but failed to win the Cup, one with a connection to this year's Final. The 1987 Philadelphia Flyers did it first, then the feat was matched by the 2004 Calgary Flames, who were coached by none other than current Kings boss Darryl Sutter.
Can Jonathan Quick Match Henrik Lundqvist in Goal?
The Stanley Cup Final features two world-class goalies who have been down very different playoff roads this year.
For the New York Rangers, 32-year-old Henrik Lundqvist is making his Stanley Cup Final debut. He's tied with the Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask for the best save percentage in the playoffs at .928 and sits second in goals-against with a 2.03 average. Lundqvist has a career record of 3-4-1 against Los Angeles, with 20 goals allowed in eight games.
The 2006 Olympic gold medalist has had a couple of bumpy moments during his playoff run but is entering the Final on a high. Lundqvist rebounded impressively from a substandard Game 5 against Montreal to shut out the Canadiens in Game 6, sealing the series for the Rangers.
For the Los Angeles Kings, 28-year-old Jonathan Quick earned the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy as his team's most valuable player during their Stanley Cup run. This year, his playoffs have been rougher: He's riding a 2.86 goals-against and .906 save percentage.
The 2010 Olympic silver medalist grew up in Milford, Connecticut, about 60 miles from Manhattan but has never played an NHL game at Madison Square Garden. In just three career games against New York, Quick is 2-1-0, with six goals allowed.
Can Alain Vigneault Win the Cup Just One Year After Being Fired?
One year on, the "coaching trade" between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks has a clear winner.
Alain Vigneault was fired by the Canucks in May 2013 after the team's second straight first-round playoff loss, despite plenty of speculation that now-terminated general manager Mike Gillis was at the heart of Vancouver's issues.
After the New York Rangers ousted John Tortorella following a second-round defeat in 2013, the unprecedented swap took place. The Rangers signed Vigneault first. Tortorella's hiring by Vancouver came just a few days later.
One season along, the coaches' fates couldn't be more different. Tortorella is once again out of a job, while Vigneault is leading his team to the Stanley Cup.
For Vigneault, a familiar foe awaits. His troubles in Vancouver began when the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Kings beat his Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks in five games in the first round of the 2012 playoffs—a win that eventually took them all the way to the Stanley Cup.
Vigneault and Darryl Sutter are familiar foes. Will the comeback kid get his revenge this time around?
Who Will Be MVP?
The Conn Smythe Trophy is up for grabs as the Stanley Cup Final begins.
Both the Kings and Rangers have played solid team games through three rounds, with contributions from up and down their lineups. The most valuable player will likely be determined by a couple of game-changing moments here in Round 4.
Los Angeles is dominating on the scoring side, boasting four of the top five offensive players in the postseason so far. Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams have all put up impressive numbers and made big contributions at important times, but the MVP favorite for the Kings so far is defenseman Drew Doughty.
Doughty has four goals and 16 points in 21 games and has been the cornerstone of the Kings defense, logging close to 28 minutes a night. If the Kings prevail, Doughty has the inside track to become the first defenseman to take home the hardware since the Anaheim Ducks' Scott Niedermayer in 2007.
Unlike the high-flying Kings, the Rangers are a middling eighth in offense in the playoffs, averaging 2.70 goals a game. Three skaters are tied for the team scoring lead with 13 points, and each has brought a very different component to the team's success so far—Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh.
Any of the three could earn consideration, but if the underdog Rangers manage to beat the Kings, it will almost certainly be due to lights-out play by Henrik Lundqvist. Consider him to be the Conn Smythe candidate for New York; if he wins, he'll follow in the footsteps of the Kings' Jonathan Quick from 2012.