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Four key matchups could determine Game 1 outcome

by Shawn Roarke /


(Game 1 of best-of-7 series)


LOS ANGELES -- The teams in the Stanley Cup Final have experienced so much since Nov. 17, which is the most-recent time they've met during the 2013-14 season.

The New York Rangers are a completely different team from the November version, which was searching for an identity under new coach Alain Vigneault. The Los Angeles Kings had yet to hit the stride that has catapulted them through three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So it is nearly pointless to dissect what happened in those two games, a 3-1 victory by the Rangers at Staples Center on Oct. 17 and a 1-0 victory by the Kings at Madison Square Garden exactly a month later.

The Kings and the Rangers will start learning about each other in person when the puck drops for Game 1 on Wednesday at Staples Center (8 p.m. ET).

The Rangers defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games in the Eastern Conference Final, winning the deciding game 1-0 with a dominant defense. Their reward was a valuable six-day rest before the start of the Final.

The Kings, as has been their nature all season, rallied from three deficits Sunday to win Game 7 of the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, 5-4 in overtime. The Kings are the only team to win a Game 7 in all three rounds before the championship, and they won each on the road to make it even more impressive.

"We've got our hands full and we're ready for it," Vigneault said.

Nobody knows how the series will play out, but here are four areas which could go a long way to determining the outcome of Game 1 and setting the tone:

Fatigue factor -- The Kings expended a ton of energy to vanquish the Blackhawks, playing into overtime in two of the final three games. Los Angeles has played 21 games this postseason, the most ever by a Stanley Cup finalist. The Kings have invested huge amounts of mental energy fighting from behind in games and in series.

When does the well run dry? Will it be against the Rangers, who will have had almost a week off since eliminating the Canadiens?

The Kings don’t believe so. They insist they are made for this kind of hockey, to play every second day, because of the depth of their lineup.

"It was such an emotional series [against Chicago], and we always talk about how you can't get too high and too low," Kings top-line center Anze Kopitar said. "Now it's a time to relax a little bit, but at the same time get your heads right for [Wednesday]. Obviously it's the first time that we've gotten home ice right now, and it's very nice, and we're going to have to cash in on it."

The Canadiens were in the same position against the Rangers in the previous round. Montreal was coming off an emotional seven-game series against the Boston Bruins and had home-ice advantage for the Eastern Conference Final. Only problem was the Canadiens came out flat in Game 1, lost, and surrendered that advantage. It was a matter of playing catch-up after that.

The Kings must avoid the same scenario.

Size advantage -- The Kings used a fleet of big, powerful forwards to flood the area around the Blackhawks net and scored huge goals from the faceoff dots in. Chicago, which deploys more of a shot-blocking philosophy, could do little to negate Los Angeles' presence around the net.

New York will have to do a better job in that area. Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said the keys will be getting position on the crease-crowding forwards and tying up the sticks of those Kings when they do gain the upper hand in the crease-front battles. By interfering with the sticks, Staal said it will eliminate some of the tip and rebound opportunities that fueled Los Angeles' attack during the conference final.

The size also comes into play on the forecheck. The Kings pressure the puck through all three zones and thrive on punishing opposing defenders when they are forced to turn and chase the puck into the defensive zone.

It is a challenge the Rangers must solve.

"They're a big, physical team," Rangers No. 1 defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "They've got a lot of size and speed. So we've got to make sure that we break their forecheck and not spend a lot of time in our zone. They've got some guys that are going to get in hard on the forecheck. We've got to utilize our communication and our puck-moving skills to try to get out of our zone clean."

Speed trap -- The Rangers are considered the faster of the teams in this Final, but it will be a question of what they do with that speed.

Will they be able to chip pucks in and retrieve them or gain the zone on the rush with speed? Or will they be turned over at the blue line and forced to defend from an unenviable position?

The Kings served the Blackhawks a steady dose of the latter. Chicago could not gain the zone cleanly on a regular basis, either beaten on puck retrieval or committing turnovers at the blue line and watching the superb transition game of Los Angeles put it under duress.

If the Rangers can gain the zone cleanly -- and that is a big if -- the offense will benefit. The Kings are much better defending up the ice than they are in defending the area around their net. New York will have to move the puck quickly, making an assured and proper first pass, said Ray Ferraro, an analyst for TSN and a former NHL player.

"Really the way you have to combat it, is the puck has to go from the defenseman either up the strong side, like right away it has to go up, or it has to go right to the [center]," Ferraro said. "As soon as you go side-to-side with it, that rush is going nowhere. It is like there is a wall there."

Faceoffs -- These teams thrive on puck possession, and there is no better way to possess the puck than through a successful faceoff. By winning draws on a consistent basis, there is less energy spent chasing the puck to regain possession.

The stats suggest the Kings will own the circle, much like they did for long stretches against the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Blackhawks. Los Angeles is at 52.9 percent for the playoffs, second to the Boston Bruins (53.4). The Rangers are at 47.5 percent, a mark beaten by all but four of the playoff teams.

The top-three centers for Los Angeles have won more than 50 percent of their faceoffs, led by the 57 percent of Jarret Stoll, who takes the majority of the biggest draws. The Rangers are led by the 46.6 percent of Brad Richards. Derek Stepan, who has taken the most draws, has won 41.5 percent.

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