After a lengthy regular season and three thrilling rounds of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, we've finally arrived at the last showdown. The Los Angeles Kings are in the hunt for their second Stanley Cup title in three seasons, and to earn it they'll have to go through a gutsy New York Rangers team that has made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final and only gotten better along the way.
As these two teams face off for the greatest trophy in sports, here is what I'm watching.
HOW MUCH DO THEY HAVE LEFT?
When the Kings won the Cup in 2012, they did it in quick fashion, winning it all in just 20 games. L.A. has already played 21 games in the first three rounds alone this time around. The Rangers have also been pushed to the brink, going seven games in their first two series and narrowly avoiding doing the same against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final.
Personally, I don't think it will be a factor. When you get this far everyone is beaten up. Everyone's hurt. These two teams, like the two teams that play for the Cup every spring, will be running on adrenaline even if they've taken particularly long roads to get here. The fact that there is an extra day off between Game 1 and Game 2 will also play a huge role, as both teams will get a chance to rest.
Both teams are tired at this point, but I doubt we'll see a drop-off in quality of play throughout this series. Just because I doubt it, though, doesn't mean it won't happen. With the amount of games these teams have played so far, I think it's important to watch how energized each team is. If this ends up going seven, it could only take one sloppy mistake to get someone else's name engraved on the Cup.
TIME FOR NASH TO COME THROUGH
New York needs Rick Nash to show up and start putting the puck in the net. He must be better. If you've watched him play throughout the postseason, a lot of people have said, "Nash is playing well, he's just not scoring." Well, I don't want to hear that anymore. That will not cut it in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Rangers need goals out of Nash. Those are going to be hard to come by against L.A., but this is a forward who is 6-foot-5 and can match up size-wise with the Kings. He can skate, he can shoot, he can do everything. They need production out of him, not for him to simply play well.
The usual suspects will chip in for New York. Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards will contribute. Derick Brassard's line must continue to play well. But Nash is the best forward this team has got. The Rangers traded for Rick Nash for this moment. This is why they brought him in from Columbus. They wanted him to do big things in big games. It hasn't happened yet and New York needs it to happen now. If we get out of Rick Nash what we've gotten out of the first three rounds, I don't think the Rangers can win.
SAME PLAYERS HAVE TO CARRY KINGS
This is a very different team from the one that won the Cup two years ago. Many of the names are the same, but they aren't quite as defensively sound and Jonathan Quick is not playing quite as well as he did in net in 2012. Darryl Sutter is a smart coach, though, and he has adapted. He might prefer to win 2-1 or 1-0 than 5-4, as the Kings did in Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks, but Sutter would rather win 5-4 than not win at all, and this year he's let his offensive horses run loose.
Anze Kopitar has been among the League leaders in points throughout the playoffs, Marian Gaborik has been one of the postseason's top goal-scorers, Jeff Carter is having a fantastic playoffs and Drew Doughty has simply been phenomenal. These are the four guys that have put the Kings in the situation they are in now. That has to continue if they're going to beat the Rangers.
The Kings boast a very deep roster and can roll four lines just like they did two years ago, but so far those four have been the names that have continually made a difference. They need to do it for one last series if they all want to lift the Cup a second time.
There are Conn Smythe possibilities for both teams, but for me the Rangers' choice is much clearer than the Kings'. If the Rangers are going to win the Stanley Cup, goalie Henrik Lundqvist absolutely has to be their best player. The only way New York wins this series is if Lundqvist wins the Conn Smythe.
For Los Angeles, the picture is a little more muddled. Carter, Gaborik, Kopitar, each of them has a solid argument for being the playoff MVP. For my money, though, I would say Doughty is the guy.
If you watch Doughty play every night, you see how much he plays, the physical presence he brings and how he runs the power play. He's been absolutely tremendous. The only thing that hurts him is there are so many other good players on the Kings that it might detract from his candidacy if they win. With New York, you know it's Lundqvist. You know he's the guy. To me though, if the Kings win it all, Doughty is my pick to win the Conn Smythe.