The last time a major American championship series pitted teams from New York and Los Angeles, the sports world was in the throes of “Fernandomania.” When the Rangers and Kings square off tonight to begin the Stanley Cup Finals, many fans expect hockey’s spring spectacle to mirror that enthralling Fall Classic that the Dodgers triumphed in 33 years ago.
Like the Bronx Bombers, who had won the World Series in both 1977 and 1978, the Kings are poised to add a second Cup in the last three seasons and cement themselves as the model franchise in the present-day NHL. And like those ’81 Dodgers, a team with a storied history that was experiencing a championship drought (they last had won the World Series 16 years prior, in 1965), the Rangers look to win their first Stanley Cup since they last appeared in the Finals 20 years ago.
As the Stanley Cup Finals get set to begin, longtime New York and Boston sports writer Mike Shalin (with contributions from A Lot of Sports Talk reporter Adesina Koiki) breaks down both teams in preparation for one of them most anticipated Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory.
The Blueshirts’ run to the Finals has resembled an unlikely championship run more along the lines of the 1969 New York Mets than their Presidents’ Trophy dominance of 1994, with New York having to overcome a steep obstacle at almost every stage of the season to get this far; from the nine-game road trip to begin the season to sending seven players to Sochi for the Olympics (not including Martin St. Louis, who was still a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning) to winning a hard-fought seven-game series against arch-rival Philadelphia in the first round and overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to Pittsburgh in the conference semifinals. (For those sports pedants, yes, we know the “Ya Gotta Believe” slogan was used for the 1973 Mets instead of the ’69 Amazin’ Mets. Get over it.)
Speaking of the aforementioned St. Louis, maybe the most ironic part to the Rangers season is the fact that New York became more of a unified squad by trading their captain and leader, Ryan Callahan, to Tampa Bay for St. Louis at the trade deadline in early March. St. Louis has made a living beating the odds, being a prolific goal-scorer and Stanley Cup champion despite his size. Though he only scored one goal for the Rangers in the regular season after the trade, his pure class – especially during the tragic time of his mother’s passing just a few days before Mother’s Day – has helped provide a positive influence and a rallying point for this team. Starting with a goal he scored on Mother’s Day in the Rangers’ Game 6 win vs. Pittsburgh in the conference semis, St. Louis tallied a point in six consecutive playoff games while regaining his scoring touch (four goals, three assists in that span).
Defensive stalwart Ryan McDonagh also saw his All-Star level play return just in time. After missing the last five games of the regular season due to shoulder injury, he came back for the start of the Flyers series, though it being the playoffs was the only reason he returned so quickly. The Rangers survived Philadelphia even though McDonagh went pointless in the series, but McDonagh has recovered physically, as evidenced by being the leading scorer for the Rangers in the Montréal series (four goals, six assists) and becoming a dominant player on the back line once again. With those 10 points against the Canadiens, McDonagh became the first Rangers defenseman to tally 10 points in a single playoff series since Brian Leetch had 11 points in the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals series vs. Vancouver.
Outside of Henrik Lundqvist (more on him a little later), the Rangers’ depth, along with their attitude under first-year head coach Alain Vigneault, may very well be the strongest aspect of the team. This is a deep team, with three lines worth of players being able to play on the power play, and Rick Nash – a former league scoring champion while in Columbus – turning into a fourth-line, two-way defensive player. Brian Boyle and Chris Kreider, regardless of their regular season stats, seem to step up their game in the postseason; the rest of the team has also bought into Vigneault’s system. In turn, the players have more freedom and are happier under Vigneault than predecessor John Tortorella, whose coaching style has had success in the past (2004 Staley Cup with Tampa), but his abrasive style also tends to grind down team morale over time.
This Stanley Cup Final is also the culmination – of sorts – of the ascent to the top of the hockey world for Henrik Lundqvist. Obviously, he still could win the Stanley Cup to put the cherry on top, but since he entered the league in the 05-06 season, he’s been arguably the best goalkeeper in the past decade. Either other great goaltenders (e.g. Martin Brodeur in 2012) or not-so-great casts in front of him have prevented “The King” from playing in the league’s greatest stage…until now. He’ll have to steal a game or two in this series for the Rangers to pull off what would be an upset, and there’s no better keeper to do just that than Henrik.
It seems like ages ago, but the Los Angeles Kings started these 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs with three consecutive losses, and a defeat in any of their next four games (if they could get that far) would have sent the team packing for good this season. Coming back from a 3-0 series deficit to defeat the San Jose Sharks in the first round, becoming the fourth NHL team in history to come back from 0-3 down and winning three road Game 7s to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals not only shows the leadership of the players on the team, but the admiration that the players have for head coach Darryl Sutter. The tenacity that his family brought to the ice, he has brought to the bench, first in Calgary and now in Los Angeles, and the Kings players will, pardon the cliché, run through a wall for him.
Speaking of walls, a wall is what Jonathan Quick has been over the past three seasons, and if Lundqvist hasn’t the best goaltender in the league over the past few seasons, it’s hard not to go with Quick. Late in the third period in that game seven win against the Chicago Blackhawks, Quick, although he had allowed four goals prior, made a couple of acrobatic saves, including going spread eagle with about five seconds left, to keep the Kings alive long enough to score the overtime winner. When in his groove, Quick is Dominik-Hasek like, pulling off saves while looking like a spastic Stretch Armstrong while getting into the heads of shooters.
For as good as Quick has been over past three postseasons (he has a Conn Smythe Trophy as proof), Drew Doughty might actually be the team’s best player during this halcyon period. When he’s not scoring multiple points in conference finals games, he’s breaking up potential breakaways late in the third period of Game 7s, as he did against Patrick Sharp in the conference finals clincher. Jim Fox, longtime color commentator on Kings broadcasts, talked with us earlier during these playoffs, and said that the bigger and faster the game gets, Doughty gets better, because he does so many different things to control the tempo of the game with and without the puck. The same is happening again this postseason.
Another key aspect to the Kings’ success is their depth, as well as the size they bring to the table with that depth. From the Selke Trophy-type season of top-line center Anze Kopitar to the scoring flurry of former Ranger sniper Marian Gaborik to the “70s line” of Jeff Carter (No. 77), Tanner Pearson (No. 70) and Tyler Toffoli (No. 73) to the Game 7 clutch-play of third-line winger Justin Williams (seven goals, 14 points and a 7-0 record in Game 7s), any member of the Kings forwards can provide that game-changing moment. Along with their talent, players like Carter, Dustin Brown and Dwight King are enormous, and their size and activity create nightmares for goaltenders having to see the puck through a phalanx of black and white while trying to stop shots from the point, as well as when having to control rebounds in the crease.
One weakness the Rangers can exploit is the fact that during these playoffs, the Kings have had games in which their opponents have grossly outshot them during long stretches of time. Despite that, if you talk to people who regularly follow the Kings, they’ll say that it’s normal and not too much of a concern, given the fact that they don’t allow “Grade A” opportunities often, especially when they have the lead. And going by the regular-season numbers, the Kings allowed the second-fewest shots in the NHL, so sooner or later, they’ll gain back control of the tempo and flow of the game.
A Lot of Sports Talk’s Stanley Cup Prediction
This series should be a classic. Yes, the Rangers have been following a fairytale script all the way to the Finals, but the grit and determination they have showed, especially in coming behind from 3-1 against Pittsburgh, proves that there’s more to this team than smoke and mirrors. I’ve been impressed by the depth all season long from the Blueshirts, and that depth needs to come to the fore when facing a team (Los Angeles) that’s almost a mirror image of themselves. Los Angeles, however, has the Stanley Cup pedigree, and that counts for something. What also counts is the Kings’ three seven-game series wins to get to the Finals; does that make them more of the team to beat, or will that tire them out if this series goes long? As much as I think fatigue will play a part in Los Angeles trying to defend the Cup (it will), I do think the Kings are a better team from top to bottom. Therefore, it will be two out of three Cups for the team in Tinseltown.
[Cover photo (Rangers group photo) courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images]