LOS ANGELES (AP) Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals is the hottest ticket in Hollywood.
Fans are paying hundreds of dollars for the cheapest seats at Staples Center on Friday night. Thousands more are expected downtown, simply hoping to be nearby when the Los Angeles Kings claim the Cup for the second time in three years.
The Kings are trying to block out every iota of anticipation. They know they can’t think about anything but the first period against the New York Rangers, or they’ll likely face another cross-country flight in what’s already the longest postseason in NHL history.
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When the Kings closed in on a sweep in the Cup finals two years ago, they were besieged by phone calls, ticket requests and overwhelming attention. They promptly went out and lost twice to the New Jersey Devils before finally finishing in Game 6.
”I guess practice makes perfect,” Mike Richards said Thursday after a light skate at the Kings’ training complex in El Segundo. ”I think everyone is more equipped now, or more ready for it, more aware of what the distractions are and how they can present themselves, and what you need to do to push them away.”
The Rangers are in their best spot in the series after winning Game 4 in New York despite Los Angeles’ overwhelming control of the final 30 minutes. And though they’re 0-2 at Staples Center in the series, the Rangers largely played well – and never trailed – in those two overtime losses.
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist took control of Game 4 with 40 saves, and he’s eager to steal another win that would make the Rangers’ unlikely quest awfully interesting.
”I know if we win (Game 5), they’re definitely going to feel the pressure,” Lundqvist said. ”We were in that spot playing Montreal. The closer you are to your final goal, obviously you tend to think more. That’s just the way you work. It’s hard not to.”
Here are five things to watch when the Kings attempt to wrap up their second championship in 46 seasons of existence:
GET STARTED: In three of the four games in this series, the Kings have never led in regulation after falling into an early 2-0 hole. That’s hardly a formula for a Stanley Cup champion, and Los Angeles is determined to get going more quickly in Game 5. Jarret Stoll said the first period was a major topic of conversation even before the Kings disembarked from their flight home early Thursday morning.
”We know we can do more, especially at the start of games,” Stoll said. ”That’s going to be our focus going into Game 5.”
FATIGUE FEARS: The Kings are playing their 26th game of the postseason, matching the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2004 Calgary Flames – also coached by Darryl Sutter – for the longest playoff run in NHL history. What’s more, the Kings are playing their 64th playoff game in the past three years, setting another league record and closing in on their 10th series victory in that span.
Yet physical fatigue hasn’t seemed to be much of a problem for the Kings – even for the star players who also suited up at the Sochi Olympics. They also realize the Rangers have played just one fewer playoff game this spring.
”Yeah, it’s a lot of games, but it’s why we play,” Stoll said.
PUCK POSSESSION: The Kings got back to their puck-dominating style of play in the second half of Game 4, outshooting the Rangers 15-1 in the third period. Los Angeles did it too late to finish a sweep, but the finish reminded the Kings how they play at their best. Los Angeles’ success is built on defense and puck possession, particularly in clearing the puck out of their own end quickly. If the Rangers can’t figure out how to get the puck away from the Kings, they’ll have to hope Lundqvist stands on his head again.
”You’ve got to make plays through traffic,” Martin St. Louis said. ”We’ve got to put pucks in areas where we can get it, because if you don’t, they bring it right back, and you can never get into your forecheck. (In Game 4) we were trying to get the clock down to zero. We’ll have to be better this time.”
LONG ODDS: Although the Rangers’ task seems straightforward when celebrities at the Garden raise four fingers, the players realize the enormity of their challenge. Of the 26 teams that have faced a 3-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup finals, only six teams avoided a sweep and only three extended the series to a sixth game. New York addressed the size of the task by splitting it into four bits.
”We’re just pretty excited to still be here,” Derick Brassard said. ”We’re going to try to steal a game and go back to the Garden for Game 6, and if we do, everything can happen.”
PRESSURE GAME: The Kings didn’t mind when Chicago claimed all the pressure in the Western Conference finals rested on Los Angeles, even while the Blackhawks faced the same 3-1 deficit currently staring down the Rangers. Lundqvist hit much the same notes about the Kings’ advantage Thursday, but New York also realizes what’s at stake.
”We’ve got plenty of pressure on us to perform, too,” Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ”If we’re not ready, they’re going to take advantage.”