The Participants: New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings
How They Got There: Neither team has had it easy. The Kings have advanced to this stage on the merit of three Game 7 victories over tough Western Conference opponents. The Rangers have played only one fewer game, managing to oust the Montreal Canadiens in six. One could argue that the Kings have had the tougher path, coming back from a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 series deficit in the first round against San Jose, followed by winning the last two against the mighty Anaheim Ducks (see what I did there?) and finally beating Chicago on the road in overtime in the deciding game. Additionally, they had to dust off veteran blueliners Matt Greene and Jeff Scultz after injuries to the steady Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr. But the Rangers’ own improbably comeback against the formidable Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round shouldn’t be minimized either. They’re resilient and tough.
Who to Watch – Rangers: Rick Nash. Honestly, you could pick any number of guys here. You wouldn’t know it by some of the high-scoring games the Kings have been involved in these playoffs, but they were the NHL’s stingiest defense during the regular season. Nash’s days of being among the league’s top goal scorers are likely in the rearview mirror, but the Rangers will need someone apart from the ageless wonder and surefire Hall of Famer, Martin St. Louis to offer a consistent offensive threat. Look for him, not to steal a basketball term, but “post up” on the talented but comparatively small Slava Voynov to try and create havoc in the slot.
Who to Watch – Kings: Tyler Toffoli/Tanner Pearson. Ok, I’m cheating by using two guys, but they’re essentially causing the same problem for opposing teams. The Kings were towards the bottom of the league in offense during the regular season, in stark contrast to their defensive excellence. But it’s not a coincidence that once these two youngsters started playing a prominent role on either side of the prolific Jeff Carter that the team’s offense spiked. Sure, the Marian Gaborik acquisition turned out to be winning lotto ticket, but these two kids’s emergence give the Kings three lines that pose a threat, so the criminally underrated Ryan McDonaugh can’t always be on the ice against an offensive threat.
Why the Rangers Can Win: Henrik Lundqvist is probably the best goalie in hockey, and plays his best when it matters the most, if these playoffs are any indicator. If a team is going to win that isn’t the best of the two, which on paper the Rangers are not, their goalie will have to steal a win or two and Lundqvist is up to the task.
Why the Kings Can Win: Their top two centers, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, are top shelf. No disrespect to Derek Stepan and Dominic Moore, but they’re not on that level. If the Kings’ centermen, including third and fourth liners Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards assert themselves, it will be tough for the Rangers to make their mark.
Why the Rangers Can Blow It: It kind of depends on how the series is officiated, but if the series is called closely by the referees, the chippy style of guys like Brian Boyle and Chris Kreider might end the Rangers up killing more penalties than they want, and a man short is not the way to beat the league’s top regular season defense. Kreider is a key cog in the machine for New York, but the microscope will also be on him after he took out Montreal’s top goalie Carey Price. Kreider swears he isn’t dirty, but Price isn’t the first netminder he’s injured. See: Anderson, Craig. If he plows over Jonathan Quick, you can bet there will penalties and a possible suspension.
Why the Kings Can Blow It: Quick has been pedestrian. That’s actually generous. He’s been shockingly poor. When they won the Cup two years back, he was an impenetrable fortress. This year, he hasn’t “stolen” a single game for the Kings. In fact, one could argue that he’s handed a few games away. This 21 game stretch of the 2014 NHL playoffs is statistically among the worst of his whole career. Carelessness on rebounds, being out of position, not fighting through screens, it hasn’t been vintage Quick. If he’s as bad as he has been the first three rounds, it won’t matter that the Kings are so good on defense.
The Wild Cards: The officials. Admittedly, I have not seen every game of this year’s playoffs, but in many of the games I have seen the men in stripes have been shockingly bad. It’s borderline miraculous the Kings were able to get past Chicago as the calls went the Hawks’ way for the vast majority of the series. The Rangers have had their own zebra complications to overcome, as anyone who looks at Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin cross-eyed gets a 37-minute major. I’ve been accused of being a conspiracy theorist before, and to a certain extent that’s accurate, but this is a New York Los Angeles championship series. The best thing from a business standpoint for the NHL would be for the series to go seven games. To me it’s not a stretch for the officials to be inclined to do what’s in their power to make that happen, in either direction.
The Prediction: Kings in six. Yeah, they’re probably a little beat up. But the general rule is that the team with the preponderance of the good players should win a series that is best of seven. Add to that that the Kings have Drew Doughty, who has been the best hockey player on the planet for the last six weeks, I just don’t see the Rangers having enough. They’ll put up a fight, but it will be a valiant effort in a losing cause.