It may or may not turn out to be the ratings bonanza that some imagine, but there is still something special about a New York-Los Angeles Stanley Cup Final.
It’s the United States’ top two markets squaring off in a clash of cultures and coasts. The Rangers have the history, with a litany of past stars and nearly a century of tradition. But the Kings have the more notable recent history, having won their first Stanley Cup in 2012 while the Rangers haven’t won since 1994.
Travel will be one of the many factors to watch as these two teams meet for the first time in the Finals and just the third time in their playoff histories. The analytics and the eyeball tests say the Kings are heavy favorites, but New York is on a roll like none it has seen this season behind the most dominant goaltender of this decade.
How they got here: New York defeated Philadelphia, 4-3, in the first round, Pittsburgh, 4-3, in the conference semifinals, and Montreal, 4-2, in the Eastern Conference Final. Los Angeles defeated San Jose, 4-3, in the first round, Anaheim, 4-3, in the second round, and Chicago, 4-3, in the Western Conference Final.
Season series: Tied, 1-1
Playoff history: New York leads, 2-0. The Rangers beat the Kings, 2-0, in a best-of-three series in 1979, and 3-1 in a best-of-five series in 1981.
Goalies: New York’s Henrik Lundqvist leads the postseason with a .928 save percentage, and that is an accurate depiction of his play thus far. There were some who wondered whether Lundqvist’s best days were behind him after posting his worst regular-season goals against average since 2009-10 and his worst save percentage since 2008-09. But the numbers were still good (2.36, .920), and Lundqvist has silenced any critics with steady positioning, consistent play and spectacular saves when needed — like the windmill save he made in the series clincher against Montreal when he dropped his stick and spun his blocker high into the air to prevent a deflected puck from crossing the goal line. Time will determine whether New York’s forward depth is adequate in this series, but Lundqvist is New York’s greatest advantage and greatest hope against the Kings as he takes the Stanley Cup Finals stage for the first time in his career.
When Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2012 as playoff MVP, it appeared to cement his status as one of the league’s elite goalies. But a look back at that run shows the Kings defeated three teams in the middle to lower third of the league’s scoring — St. Louis, Phoenix and New Jersey. Was Quick’s legend overstated? In three series this season against teams (San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago) ranked among the league’s top five in regular-season scoring, Quick has been decidedly average — or worse. Quick’s .906 save percentage ranks 12th among goalies who played at least four games in this postseason, and his 2.86 goals against average ranks 14th. He has made some brilliant saves, but he also has allowed too many soft goals; the model of inconsistency. In New York, he faces the worst regular-season offensive team (18th) he’s seen this postseason. New York is averaging 2.8 goals a game in the playoffs, eighth of the league’s 16 playoff teams. Will that be enough to get Quick back on track, or were the past two seasons’ playoff performances the anomaly?
Key players: New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh has stepped into the spotlight as one of the NHL’s premier defensemen in this postseason. He’s logging heavy minutes (25:11 per game), he’s shown an incredible ability to close space quickly, and he’s given the Rangers a steadying presence they will so desperately need against Los Angeles’ speed, depth and suddenly lethal counter-attacking ability. He will be compared with one of the league’s very best in this series: L.A.’s fellow 24-year-old Drew Doughty, who is a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy this postseason with spectacular play at both ends of the ice and an average ice time of 27:50 that ranks fifth in the postseason. But McDonagh’s greatest challenge will come in the shutdown role against L.A.’s top line of Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown, who have combined for 55 points in the playoffs.
Los Angeles RW Marian Gaborik leads the postseason with 12 goals, and now he gets to go up against the team that dealt him to Columbus at the trade deadline last season for forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett, and defenseman John Moore. Playing alongside Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown has revived Gaborik’s once-brilliant career while giving L.A. a complete and potent top line. How badly do you think Gaborik wants to show New York what he’s worth — not to mention the rest of the league, since he will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season?
Key stats: Los Angeles leads the postseason with 3.48 goals per game. … New York is second in the postseason in goals against, allowing 2.25 per game. … The Rangers’ penalty killing unit also ranks second at 85.9 percent. … L.A.’s power play is ranked fifth at 25.4 percent. … L.A. has won nine of its past 10 playoff series.
Breakdown: The Rangers and Kings each accomplished something that had never been done before in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Both teams won back-to-back Game 7s to advance through the first two rounds. No team that had to go seven games in its first two playoff series had ever won in the third round.
After winning the Eastern Conference Final in six games, the Rangers have played 20 games, while the Kings have played 21 (L.A. won all three Game 7s on the road). The record for games played in one playoff season is 26, set by the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2004 Calgary Flames. The most games ever played by a Cup winner is 25 by the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2011 Boston Bruins — a record that could very well fall this season.
On paper, the Kings appear to have superior depth on their blue line and up front. Los Angeles center Anze Kopitar leads the postseason with 24 points, and center Jeff Carter has set career playoff highs in goals (nine), assists (13), points (22) and shooting percentage (16.7) this postseason. Carter took advantage of Chicago’s lack of center depth to give L.A. a huge lift in a remarkably offensive Western Conference Final. With the combination of Kopitar, Jarrett Stoll and Mike Richards, the perception is that L.A. is much deeper up the middle, but New York’s centers got stronger and stronger as the Eastern Conference playoffs progressed. Derek Stepan, Brad Richards, Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore could surprise in this series, and they will need to because L.A. was one of the top two possession teams in the league this season (Chicago was the other). Possession starts in the middle and at the faceoff dot where Los Angeles is ranked second in the postseason at 52.9 percent while New York is a pedestrian 12th at 47.5 percent.
New York wing Martin St. Louis has been an inspirational story this spring after the death of his mother. He, Stepan and McDonagh lead the Rangers with 13 points, but will New York be able to score enough to keep up with the Kings? It’s time for wing Rick Nash to earn that big paycheck, but don’t forget about 23-year-old forward Chris Kreider (10 points in 10 games), whose speed and fearlessness create opportunities.
Aside from Lundqvist, New York’s biggest advantage in this series may be the extra three days of rest it got while Los Angeles was going the emotional and real distance with a third straight top-tier opponent in the much deeper Western Conference. Expect a bit of a letdown from the Kings before they rev up the rally machine one final time to take the Cup in a series that will go longer than most expect — and longer than it probably should.