Cup Final preview, pick: Kings vs. Rangers

Gord Stellick breaks down the stunning Game 7 thriller between the L.A. Kings and Chicago Blackhawks and why fans shouldn't count out the New York Rangers.

2014 Stanley Cup Final
Los Angeles Kings (P3) vs. New York Rangers (M2)

Season series: Tied 1-1

They have a history: Believe it or not, they do. The NHL has had some wonky playoff formats in its time, and the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers—despite dwelling on opposite coasts—have met previously in a pair of first-round series. The Blueshirts won both, the first being a two-game sweep in a best-of-three showdown in 1979, a year in which the Rangers upset their way to the Stanley Cup Final. Two seasons later, New York won a best-of-five first-round series in four games. What really links New York and L.A. is the fact both cities represent the biggest TV markets in the United States, which is why NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is forgoing flying back and forth between these games in favour of simply tap-dancing across the country. Marian Gaborik, a Ranger from 2009 to 2013, was picked up from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the deadline by L.A. and leads the post-season with 12 goals.

For the Kings to win: Keep the goals coming. After struggling to find the net in the regular season, Los Angeles has become an offensive dynamo in the post-season, averaging 3.48 goals per game. A big part of that is due to the aforementioned Gaborik, but it’s really the crazy depth the Kings boast that allows them to roll over teams. That’s especially key against New York because the Rangers’ top defensive pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi is tough to exploit. The Kings are also getting tremendous production from their blue line, where Drew Doughty leads all defencemen in playoff scoring with 16 points. Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez are also pushing the attack.

Best Kings storyline: They get on another one of their rolls where they look like a 260-pound running back rumbling toward the end zone as the safeties jump out of the way. When it won the Cup in 2012, L.A. held a 3-0 advantage in each series it played. This year the Kings blitzed the San Jose Sharks in four straight games after falling behind 0-3, won games 6 and 7 against the Ducks, and rumbled out to a 3-1 series lead against Chicago before catching themselves just in time to claim the West final. The point is, while L.A. can have its slips, no team in the league is as mean and dominant at its zenith.

Leading scorer: Anze Kopitar, 24 points (five goals, 19 assists)

Game 1 starter: Jonathan Quick, 12-9, 2.86 GAA, .906 save percentage

For the Rangers to win: Certainly a lot is riding on the shoulders of Henrik Lundqvist, who’s appearing in his first Cup Final. Lundqvist’s .928 save percentage is the best mark of any goalie in the post-season and may have to climb even higher if he’s going to thwart the hot shooters from L.A. The good news for New York is Kings goalie Jonathan Quick hasn’t shown top form throughout the playoffs. His .906 save percentage is way down from the incredible .946 mark he posted in 2012—when his team won the championship and he was named MVP—and still nowhere near his .934 mark in 18 playoff games last year. Like a great comedian, Quick has fantastic timing and tends to make the big save when his boys need it, but overall, he’s part of the reason the Kings are a little looser than in previous years. Though not on the same level as L.A., the Rangers also boast a balanced attack, depending on three lines to generate goals. If they can get the odd softie past Quick, it will be a huge help.

Best Rangers storyline: Their team speed befuddles a bigger, slower L.A. team. From Martin St. Louis to Carl Hagelin to Mats Zuccarello, the Blueshirts have some guys who can really wheel. And if they could ever get the big guy, Rick Nash, going for a stretch, it would be a massive boon. Nash has five goals in 36 career playoff games and hadn’t found the net through two rounds this year. To be fair, he buried three times against Montreal in the East final, but, man, New York could really use a breakout series from this guy.

Leading scorers: Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh all have 13 points.

Game 1 starter: Henrik Lundqvist, 12-7, 2.03 GAA, .928 save percentage

Matchup to watch: Everybody against everybody? These teams have combined to play 41 games this spring; that’s one less than the maximum possible and exactly half a full NHL season. Bodies must be getting tired on both ends, so who holds up better? Maybe the Rangers, since the Kings are about to play their 11th playoff series in three years. More specifically, the goalies are always a point of intrigue, and the Rangers are in trouble if Quick gets hot and Lundqvist is anything but awesome. Mind you, from underwhelming Antti Niemi in San Jose to overwhelmed rookie John Gibson in Anaheim to crumbling Corey Crawford in Chicago, L.A. hasn’t yet faced high-level goaltending for the duration of a series. That changes now.

Big question: Can New York just hang around? Los Angeles will be everybody’s pick, but there’s a cagey element to this Blueshirts team, with former Bolts buddies St. Louis and Brad Richards returning to the final 10 years after winning the Cup together in 2004. Dominic Moore and Brian Boyle give the Rangers great depth minutes and have helped New York kill 85 per cent of the penalties it takes. As mentioned, L.A. is a load once its get rolling, but if the Rangers can get their sticks in the spokes a few times and make this a 2-2 series after four games, we could be in for a beauty.

Best bet: Kings in seven.

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