Los Angeles Kings vs. New York Rangers: Before I break down this series, here’s my take on how these clubs were able to win in the Conference Final.
The big story from the Eastern Conference Final was the Game 1 injury to Canadiens star goalie Carey Price. What effect did the Price injury have on the series? There’s no question that, in filling in for Price, Montreal (and former Lightning) goaltender Dustin Tokarski did not cost his team the series against the Rangers. By my count, Tokarski had one “average” game – Game Five – and his team even won that game. A more reasonable question revolves around how the Habs played in front of Tokarski. For much of the series, Montreal did not look like the same team that swept the Lightning and ousted Boston. Could it have been that the Montreal players competed with less swagger once Price went down? That can happen to a team when it loses its No. 1 netminder.
Price or no Price, though, the Rangers deserve a lot of credit for Montreal’s troubles. The Rangers were, by a wide margin, the better team in Games 1, 3 and 6. (The Habs, thanks to Tokarski, stole Game 3). In particular, New York’s Game 6 defensive effort was Championship-worthy. The Habs, facing elimination, were held to only 18 shots and had only five in the third period. If the Rangers are going to beat the Kings, they’ll need similar performances in the Final. That’s because, even though the Rangers outplayed Montreal for the majority of the series, they didn’t do so in every game. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was the main reason why the Rangers won Game Two, a contest in which New York yielded 41 shots. And the 7-4 loss in Game Five was an ugly one for the Blueshirts. The Rangers can ill-afford those types of games against Los Angeles.
The Kings have become the first team in NHL history to win three Game Seven contests on the road in a single playoff year, so clearly, their path to the Final has had its share of bumps. They’ve played seven elimination games already this year – and became just the fourth club in NHL history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit. This up-and-down journey has not been due to inconsistent play, though. Instead, it speaks to the quality of the opposition. The Kings have dispatched three of the league’s heavyweights – the Sharks, Ducks and Blackhawks – and, as expected, it wasn’t an easy task.
The Western Final was especially tight and hard-fought. The quality of play was off-the-charts high. So high, in fact, that at times, it looked as though one of the clubs was struggling with its game. But those troubles were rarely self-inflicted. Rather, it was due to the other team imposing its will and carrying play. One of those dominant occasions for the ‘Hawks came in Game Two. Already having won Game One, Chicago grabbed a 2-0 lead in the second period and was pressing for more. But late in the frame, the Kings scored off a fortunate bounce and cut the deficit to one. Buoyed by that goal, LA exploded for five more goals in the third period and evened the series. This resiliency was on display in Game Seven as well, as the Kings rallied from three separate deficits before winning in overtime. It was an amazing series between two of the top clubs in the league.
I’m curious to see how many pundits will pick the Rangers, who will enter the Final as heavy underdogs. Not because they don’t deserve to be there – they do – but because LA is viewed (accurately, in my mind) as one of the league’s dominant clubs. The Kings are just two years removed from a Stanley Cup and their roster is filled with battle-tested playoff veterans. Also, as I mentioned, they’ve already knocked off three legitimate Cup contenders this year. One of the biggest (and only) problems for the Kings over this season was a quiet offense. But in this postseason, the Kings are averaging a league-best 3.48 goals scored per game. It’s true that their usually-stingy defense has been uncharacteristically loose (2.86 GA/G), but they’ve had to play three of the best offensive teams in the league so far. The Rangers simply don’t have the same amount of firepower as the Sharks, Ducks and Blackhawks.
So if the Rangers are going to win, they’ll likely need to do it with defense and goaltending. They’ll have to limit LA’s time and space and Lundqvist must be spectacular. New York will need to be opportunistic on offense – winning the special teams battle would help in this regard – and hope that Jonathan Quick is not on top of his game. (Quick’s numbers this playoff year are worse than they were during the 2012 Cup run, but he has also provided LA with some timely and spectacular saves throughout the postseason).
So those are a lot of moving parts that have to align perfectly for the Rangers. They’ll need to be at their absolute best (as they were in Game 6 versus Montreal) – and hope that the Kings are not. But LA, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this space, looks like a machine. The Kings have shown no indication that their game is going to dip. And I don’t think it will. Prediction: Los Angeles in Six.