New York vs. LA for the Stanley Cup

Posted: 06/03/2014 by levcohen in Hockey

Short of something absolutely astounding, there is no way that this series eclipses the Western Conference final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings. In many ways, that series was for the cup, because those two teams were clearly the two best in all of hockey. And boy did they play a great series. Nearly everyone, with the exception of both goalies, played extremely well. The last three games in particular were awesome. After falling behind 3-1, the Blackhawks were seemingly done. They had lost three straight games, and Jonathan Quick, one of the best goalies in the NHL, was seemingly on his game. And then the Blackhawks rallied from a 4-3 third period deficit, tying it and then finishing it off in double overtime. The Kings couldn’t close it in game six, either. The Blackhawks rallied again, winning 4-3. It all hinged on game seven in Chicago, and it was a terrific game seven, ending with a 5-4 Kings win (again, the winning team rallied from a goal down in the third period and won in overtime). The ratings were through the roof, although that had more to do with support from Chicago than it did with support from LA. In fact, although Los Angeles is the bigger city, the NHL would probably have seen all-time high ratings come from a New York-Chicago Stanley Cup final, simply because an enormous percentage of Chicago watches Blackhawks playoff hockey. But that final wasn’t to be, although the Blackhawks definitely didn’t embarrass themselves.
Many people are now calling the Los Angeles Kings an “all-time great” team. While they are probably the best team in hockey right now, I’d disagree with that label. An “all-time great” team would put opponents away quickly. The Kings have definitely not done that. They were almost eliminated in the first round, losing the first three games to San Jose. Then, against Anaheim and Chicago, the Kings were again forced to a game seven. So while they aren’t an amazing team, they are an INCREDIBLE game seven team. And Justin Williams, who scored another goal, is the epitome of that. Williams now holds the ALL-TIME record, above even Wayne Gretzky, for most game seven points, at 14. He’s averaging two points per game seven, which is amazing. This team is now 7-0 in elimination games, and they became the first team to play the maximum 21 games (seven in each of the first three rounds) and reach the Stanley Cup final. That they were written off at any point was probably foolish, but I don’t think a team that flirts with disaster so often and has such a hot-and-cold goalie (Quick is amazing sometimes, but he hasn’t been for most of this postseason) should be expected to go this far, even a team as talented as the Los Angeles Kings.
Although the West is clearly the better conference, I don’t think it’s wise to write this series off. I think the New York Rangers, who defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games, will be ready. Their victory over the Canadiens was obviously aided by the injury to Carey Price, but I think they would have won the series regardless. They don’t have many advantages over the Kings, and this series might be a sweep, but you can never write off a team with a goalie as hot as Henrik Lundqvist.
So who’s going to win the series? I haven’t seen one pro-Rangers prediction, and I won’t be picking the Rangers, but here are some keys to the series for each team:

Keys for Los Angeles:

  • Just keep doing what they’ve been doing offensively: It’s hard to imagine now, but the Los Angeles Kings were a team that had a hard time scoring goals. They scored just 2.41 goals per game, a number that was fifth worst in the NHL in the regular season. They had a power play that was so bad (it ended fourth worst at 15.1%) that they needed to make a panic move for Marian Gaborik. The Gaborik move has turned out very well, and the Kings have had no scoring troubles in the playoffs. They’ve upped their power play success rate to 25.4%, first among the four conference final teams. Not only do they have 15 more goals than the next best team, but they are averaging an NHL-high 3.48 goals per game in the playoffs. That’s more than a goal better than their regular season, which is enormous. Four of the top five point scorers in the playoffs (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Gaborik, and Williams) are Los Angeles Kings. So again, just keep doing what you’re doing, and hope everyone stays hot.
  • Get an improvement from Jonathan Quick: It’s hard to criticize Jonathan Quick, because of the outstanding career that the goalie has had. But no player is immune to poor play, and Quick has played poorly. He’s allowing 2.86 goals per game, and his save percentage is just .906. To put that in perspective, his numbers in the amazing 2012 run to the Cup as an eighth seed were 1.41 goals allowed per game and a .946 save percentage. Even last year, when the Kings were eliminated in the Western Conference final, he allowed fewer than two goals per game and saved more than 93% of shots that came his way. Simply put, Quick has taken a huge step back, even though at 28 he should be in the prime of his career. He can still have a great series, but he’s been very inconsistent. That needs to change.
  • Stave off fatigue: As I mentioned earlier, the Kings are in uncharted territory right now. No team has ever played the amount of games they have en route to the Cup final, and fatigue might start to creep in, especially since the break between series isn’t exceptionally long. They need to continue to play energetic hockey, because otherwise they might end up stuck in another long series against a team they should dominate.

Keys for New York:

  • Slow down that offense: The Rangers should be encouraged by the fact that this wasn’t always a dominant offense, and I think they are a team that could well slow down, if not stop, the powerhouse that is the Los Angeles Kings. They match up well on the penalty kill, as they snuffed out 85.3% of power plays in the regular season (third best) and 85.9% in the playoffs. This is a good defensive team, and the only way they’ll be able to win is by keeping the score low. If it becomes a shooting exhibition for the Kings, it’s not going to end well for the Rangers.
  • Henrik Lundqvist can’t just be good: He needs to be great. By great I mean he needs to be better than he has ever been, which is really saying something. If Lundqvist is outplayed by Quick, it’ll be a sweep. If he is slightly better than the Kings’ netminder, it’ll be over in five or six. He needs to be the best goalie in the series by far. His save percentage in the playoffs, .928, is very good, but it probably isn’t good enough. Lundqvist is a very good and accomplished goalie, but he needs to be great against the Kings.
  • Create fast breaks and utilize a speed advantage: It’s hard to find an advantage the Rangers hold over this stacked Los Angeles team. The Kings are more physical, they’re more skilled, and they are more experienced. The one thing they don’t have, with the exception of Gaborik, is a lot of speed. The Rangers are a faster team, and they need to use that. When the Kings’ defense gets settles in its zone, it is hard to break. But can you beat Drew Doughty (who was about the only King who played a bad game seven) Co. on breakaways? Possibly, and that’s the Rangers’ best chance to get offensive opportunities.

Bottom Line: The Kings are a much better team, but that doesn’t mean they are going to sweep this series. I think fatigue will be a factor, and the Rangers have a shot if- and only if- Lundqvist plays out of his mind. I hope it goes to a game seven, because that would mean Lundqvist, who has been incredible in game sevens, would play against a Kings team that is unrivaled in game seven success. The Rangers would do well to take it to game seven, and while I don’t think they’ll be embarrassed, I think the Kings will take this series rather easily. Kings win in 5.

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