The 2014 Stanley Cup Final officially begins on Wednesday, and there are a couple of players who must play well for both the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers if their respective teams want to walk away as champions.
Both the Rangers and Kings have taken very dramatic paths to get here, with the two already playing a combined 41 games in the playoffs. The Kings have had to play in Game 7 in every series so far, and with how close each team has come to elimination, this series will likely be just as close.
While both sides are probably quite tired at this point, being in the Stanley Cup Final will help re-energize them. Having said that, let's take a look at a couple of the most important players for each team.
New York Rangers
This series is going to likely be a low-scoring affair between two of the best defensive teams in the NHL, and that means that the Rangers will have to hope that veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist can continue to play at a high level.
This postseason, Lundqvist has probably been one of the most consistent goalies. He's posted a .928 save percentage with just 2.03 goals allowed per game and a 12-7 record. He was quite impressive in his two games during the regular season against the Kings, when he allowed just 1.01 goals per game with a .966 save percentage.
The 32-year-old veteran was especially dominant in Game 6 against the Montreal Canadiens, stopping all 18 shots to lead the Rangers to a 1-0 shutout win and helping them win the series.
"Nothing surprises me with Henrik," Derek Stepan told Josh Thomson from USA Today. "He was unbelievable. He was Henrik again."
The Kings will have some weapons to go against Lundqvist, but with how well he's playing right now, they'll have a hard time getting shots past him.
After a slow start to the postseason, Rick Nash is starting to heat up, and the Rangers will need him to get on the board a few more times in the Stanley Cup Final.
Nash didn't have a single goal in the first two rounds of this year's playoffs, but he turned things around in the conference final against the Canadiens. He had three goals and two assists in the series, and he'll be looking to improve upon that in the next series.
ESPN's Pierre LeBrun called Nash a "hero in waiting" for this series, saying:
In any case, after scoring three goals in the Eastern Conference finals, those boos have turned to cheers. If the Rangers are going to pull off the upset, the two-time Olympic gold medalist will need to be front and center, his size and strength a needed ingredient against the league's heaviest and most physical team.
Heading into a matchup against the best defense in the NHL in terms of goals allowed this season, Nash needs to get in a groove offensively when he's on the ice to give the Rangers some goals.
Los Angeles Kings
Even if the Rangers have the edge at goalie in this series, Lundqvist doesn't have a top-tier defenseman like Drew Doughty in front of him.
Doughty has made an incredibly strong case for the Conn Smythe Trophy this postseason, as he's been playing his best hockey at the best possible time. In 21 games, the 24-year-old has put up four goals and 12 assists with a plus-five rating.
Defenseman Willie Mitchell told Craig Custance of ESPN.com:
People recognize those abilities of him as a player, they get reconfirmed at that stage in the Olympics or playoff time, but we see it on a nightly basis. He's just a heck of a hockey player in every fashion. Not only offensive and dynamic on the blue line where he can shake guys and move and take shots, but he's very good defensively.
As probably one of the best two-way defenseman in the league, expect plenty of big things from Doughty in this series.
The Kings traded for former Columbus Blue Jackets right wing—and one-time New York Ranger—Marian Gaborik back in March, and the move has helped make the Kings a legitimate contender, thanks to an unbelievable postseason.
After scoring just 11 goals in the regular season, Gaborik has already put up 12 goals and seven assists in the playoffs. According to ESPN's Arash Markazi, Gaborik's 12 postseason goals are second in Kings history behind someone named Wayne Gretzky.
Marian Gaborik has 12 goals in the playoffs. Only Gretzky (15 goals in 1993) has scored more goals in a single postseason in Kings history.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) June 2, 2014
Thanks to Gaborik, the Kings offense has looked completely different than it did in the regular season. Suddenly, the Kings have been the best offense in the playoffs with an NHL-leading 73 goals. It seems that Gaborik has finally settled in with his new team, and that's scary for the Rangers.