The Glass Eye: NHL Playoff Preview – The Stanley Cup Final

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Well, the NHL certainly has to be happy – at long last, they get the LA-NY matchup they have long coveted. It should make for decent ratings, a lot of upset LA fans (every game starts at 5PM LA time)…and potentially, some rather dull hockey. Both of these teams are defense-first, with great goalies, solid defense and a total team effort on offense.

New York got here primarily by out-goaltending the Canadiens, which became a much easier task when Montreal’s Carey Price was lost for the series in Game 1. Without Price’s sublime talents, it became pretty clear that Montreal was in trouble.

LA is coming off of a grueling, 7-game series with the Blackhawks that is an ‘instant classic’. That series had everything – comebacks, goals, saves, hits, even a Game 7 overtime to decide it! As many others have said, that series really SHOULD have been the Cup final – it’s pretty clear that the West is the superior conference this year.

LA is now a whopping 7-0 this postseason when facing elimination…that’s absolutely incredible, a testament to their resilience – but also a testament to their good fortune. You’ll hear a lot about that special ‘something’ the Kings have when their backs are against the wall – let’s be honest, luck (or randomness if you prefer) plays a HUGE role in any series, and especially so in a game decided by overtime. But for a bounce here or there, the Kings could easily have been out in any of the first three rounds. They are undeniably a great, great team…but their remarkable run of luck here only underscores how hard it is to win a Stanley Cup.

FORWARDS

I’ve been down on New York’s collection of forwards every round, but there’s no question that they came through against Montreal – especially Rick Nash, who finally broke out with three goals against the Canadiens. Overall, New York scored 20 goals in six games after scoring only 34 in the first 14 games of the postseason. Part of that was certainly due to Price’s injury; but let’s give the Rangers credit for picking up the pace at a time when it was absolutely necessary.

Their best line is still Zuccarello-Pouliot-Brassard, but if Nash is producing they at least can pose some matchup problems for the Kings. Let’s be clear, though: this is still a below-average offensive team, with a collection of forwards that is mediocre at best.

LA has more star power AND more depth than the Rangers up front. Anze Kopitar is the best player you never get to see – he’s a 2-way demon with a knack for coming up big in big situations. The re-emergence of ex-Ranger Marian Gaborik (12 goals, 19 points in 21 games) has been HUGE for the Kings as well. Add in the 7th-game heroics of Justin Williams, the consistent scoring of Jeff Carter, and the depth scoring from King, Brown, and Taffoli and you can see that while the Kings are certainly not an ELITE offense, they are a capable group, and better overall than the Ranger’s front line.

There’s one area that the Rangers have an advantage: the 4th line. The Kings’ typical 4th line of Richards, Lewis, and Clifford have been on the ice for a lot of opposition goals this postseason – and they have not produced much offense of their own. The Rangers’ 4th line has been far more productive – and disruptive – through three rounds. Look for this to be a factor as the series moves along.

DEFENSE

The best defenseman on either team is LA’s Drew Doughty, and he’s lived up to his usual form with 16 points thus far, while averaging almost 28 minutes per game. Muzzin, Voynov, and Martinez round out the top four and are all above-average. The bottom pair is something of a concern – injuries have limited Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr, and while Matt Greene has been competent, if the team has to turn to Jeff Schultz they are significantly weakened.

New York also boasts a deep defense corps, but their group is far more one-dimensional. Six of the Rangers’ playoff goals have been from their blue line, while LA’s defense has scored 15 times thus far. NY’s best blue liner is Ryan McDonagh, who was limited by injury early in the playoffs but appears to be rounding into his normal form. Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Anton Stralman round out the top-4 for the Rangers, but like LA there’s potentially a weak link in the bottom pairing. The coaching staff very carefully manages the ice time of John Moore and Kevin Klein to give them the best matchups, but they can be exposed against top-end forwards.

Overall once again the Kings have the advantage here, especially when it comes to getting offense from the blue line.

GOALTENDING

Let’s face it – the Rangers are here because of Lundqvist, and if they win it will be because ‘King Henrik’ steals the series. The Rangers are outmanned overall, but they have a great goalie playing his best hockey when it matters most. Can he continue his hot stretch for another two weeks? The answer to that question may decide this year’s champion. Thus far he has a .928 save % and a 2.03 goals-against average. Both are unsustainable over the long haul – and both figure to rise against the relentless Kings – but if he can play to his usual standards, the Rangers will make this a long series.

On the other side, Jonathan Quick has been good at times, but MUCH less consistent than Lundqvist.  His numbers are subpar overall, with a .906 save % and a 2.86 goals-against average, but he’s faced arguably the top three teams in the league in the Sharks, Ducks, and Blackhawks – certainly the best offenses in the West.   Unlike Lundqvist, he hasn’t really carried his team to victory – he allowed the first two goals and four overall in Game 7 against Chicago, and he’s allowed 3+ goals in 11 of the 21 games in the postseason. Clearly, he will have to play better for the Kings to prevail.

This is the one area that New York appears to have an edge, and at the moment I’d say it’s a significant one. Quick just hasn’t been himself for most of the playoffs, and the Kings have won in spite of him at times.

OTHER FACTORS

Fatigue will end up being a factor for both teams by the end of this series – if the series goes seven games, both teams will travel coast-to-coast four times and have to deal with all that jet lag. Both teams have played grueling schedules already – the Kings have played the maximum 21 games so far, the Rangers 20. Expect some mental errors and generally sloppy play, especially in games 2 and 4 after the initial adrenaline wears off after each team’s first home game.

Normally I’d cite LA’s three 7-game series as an impediment, but it’s not like the Rangers have gotten much more rest. I think a bigger factor will be experience. LA’s unbelievable record when facing elimination might be very lucky, but it also has the side effect of instilling the Kings with a GREAT deal of confidence. They genuinely believe they are never out of a game or a series, no matter the setting. The Rangers, meanwhile, have great confidence in Lundqvist – but he carries the weight of the team on his shoulders. If he falters, the Rangers have almost no chance.

PREDICTION 

As this postseason has reaffirmed, ANYTHING is possible in a short series. As a bonus, I’ve underestimated the Rangers every round so far. Having said that…there’s no way I can justify picking New York here. All else being equal, the Kings have the better team, the better coach, the higher confidence, and  I think they can overcome not having the better goalie. I expect Lundqvist to steal a game or two – and the Kings are usually good for one or two games per round where they can’t buy a goal  –  but I think in the end, Kopitar and Co. carry the day. KINGS IN SIX.

Dave Glass can be reached at dsglass74@gmail.com.                                                                                                                                                           

 

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