The Los Angeles Kings defeated the New York Rangers in Game 1 on Wednesday, 3-2, and the 2012 Cup champions are probably exhaling right now. The Kings capitalized on mistakes the Blueshirts made, including one on the game-winning goal, but it was hardly their best performance of the playoffs.
One prevailing theme of Game 1, and one that will continue to cause problems the rest of the series, was speed. For the first 40 minutes of the Cup Final opener, the Blueshirts were hard on the forecheck and they were outskating the Kings to the majority of loose pucks that were on the ice.
The Blueshirts' two goals in Game 1 were the by-product of speed and the breakaways that followed. In the first period, Benoit Pouliot capitalized on a rare miscue made by Drew Doughty, and he used his speed to create an optimal angle before sniping a shot over the shoulder of Jonathan Quick.
Shortly after scoring, the Kings had an opportunity to tie, but once again the Blueshirts' speed made a difference. Carl Hagelin was the Rangers forward who capitalized this time, although it was made possible because Slava Voynov committed an error similar to one made at the 1994 World Cup that resulted in a vigilante execution of the offending player.
No matter how you slice it, the Rangers' speed early on in Game 1 gave them a huge edge against a very favored Kings squad. Although the Rangers lost in Game 1, they now have a working blueprint that can be used in Game 2.
While the Kings have players such as ex-Ranger Marian Gaborik and Tyler Toffoli who can turn on the jets, they can't compete with the Rangers if this series becomes a "drag race."
Simply put, the Kings weren't ready for the Blueshirts' speed in Game 1.
Justin Williams: "We certainly weren’t ready for the speed of their wingers."— Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) June 5, 2014
Using players like Hagelin and Pouliot was effective in Game 1, but once Marty St. Louis, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello start using their speed with more frequency, the Kings could be in trouble. While the Kings have a pretty solid defense, they were caught flatfooted a number of times in Game 1.
That was because the Rangers were moving the puck and cycling with speed during the first half of the game, and it was a strategy that can eventually wear out a team that played in three seven-game series before advancing to the Final.
This strategy can be even more effective in Games 3, 4 and potentially 6 when the Rangers are at Madison Square Garden. At MSG, head coach Alain Vigneault will have last change, so he will be able to manipulate the Blueshirts' zone starts so the team's fastest players are out against the Kings' slowest.
This was Vigneault's method of operation against the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens, so nothing will change once the series shifts to New York. If all goes to plan, the Blueshirts will be able to start generating more offense in transition and off the rush, and their offense will produce.
Who will win Game 2?
However, the Rangers need to steal Game 2, because coming home in a 2-0 hole is something that could be tough to overcome.
The Kings made a name for themselves in 2012 as road warriors, so the Blueshirts definitely don't want to put themselves in a vulnerable position heading home. The Rangers beat themselves more than the Kings did in Game 1, and that is something the team can fix heading in to Game 2.
Maintaining better control of the puck, minimizing turnovers and carrying the puck into the zone are all areas that can be improved upon, and a better execution in these areas during Game 1 would have resulted in a Blueshirts victory.
None of that matters now because the Kings were the victors when all was said and done. If anything, it should be noted that not only did the Rangers keep pace with the Kings, but they were able to outskate them at moments.
The Rangers will need to rebound in Game 2, and this series is far from over. The Kings may indeed win this series, but the Blueshirts showed enough in Game 1 to put to bed the notion that this series would end in four or five games.
This could be a very long series, especially if the Kings can't find an answer for the Blueshirts' speed the rest of the series.