NEW YORK -- One of the biggest themes from this stunning postseason run of the Los Angeles Kings has been how the additions of Marian Gaborik, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson have altered the forward depth and made the club more potent offensively.
Another change from 2013 to this season though has occurred gradually and been just as important. Defenseman Jake Muzzin has improved tremendously from his rookie season, and his placement with Drew Doughty on the top pairing has made the Kings a different team.
Muzzin had a key goal in Game 3 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final as the Kings defeated the New York Rangers 3-0. They lead the best-of-7 series 3-0, with Game 4 Wednesday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m.; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"[Muzzin] has been doing great," Doughty said. "The way this has gone so far, I hope to able to play with [Muzzin] for a long, long time. We're creating a lot of chemistry. We're really good friends off the ice. On the ice he's playing great and he's getting even better too. When he's on his game he's physical, he's good defensively. And obviously offensively he's a good puck mover and has a good shot. [Muzzin] has been really, really good for this team."
Break down this series player-by-player and the Rangers have been pretty close to the Kings in nearly every area of the ice. The Kings have received slightly better goaltending, and that's been a factor.
Los Angeles' offensive depth has been apparent as 11 different players have scored for the Kings. But the one place the Kings have had the biggest advantage has been the player who skates next to the franchise defenseman.
Both teams have a great No. 1 on the blue line. Ryan McDonagh, save for a turnover just before the game-winning goal in Game 2, has played well for the Rangers in this series. Doughty might lift two trophies if the Kings close the series by adding a Conn Smythe Trophy to his resume.
Muzzin has played very well in this postseason for the Kings and continues to do so in the Final. McDonagh's partner, Dan Girardi, has not played nearly as well.
There have been obvious missteps by Girardi. He flubbed a pass in his end in overtime of Game 1 and Mike Richards sent the turnover to Justin Williams, who scored the winning goal. Girardi and McDonagh were on the ice for the game-tying and game-winning goals in Game 2.
The Kings were up 2-0 in Game 3 when Girardi pinched down the right wall to try and keep the puck in the offensive zone. He lost a battle for the puck to Kyle Clifford, a fourth-line forward for Los Angeles who has played well in this series, and it ignited a 2-on-1 break for the Kings. Richards got a lucky bounce before scoring to make it 3-0, but it was only possible because of the mistake at the other end of the ice.
Before this postseason Muzzin remained something of a mystery. He scored seven goals as a rookie in 2012-13 but did not stand out in the playoffs. The Kings used veteran Willie Mitchell next to Doughty in the 2012 playoffs and Robyn Regehr played there after arriving in a trade last season, but Muzzin has secured that position this season and it doesn't appear he will relinquish it anytime soon.
Muzzin looks like a possession maven, and his 61.1 Corsi-for percentage in the regular season was incredible. It was the best mark among defensemen in the NHL and second among all players to Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron.
Playing with Doughty, and by extension seeing lots of ice time with Anze Kopitar up front, certainly helps that number. But Muzzin appears to be the kind of player who drives possession instead of someone who just benefits from others.
The sample sizes are small, but he also had a Corsi-for percentage of more than 60 percent with Matt Greene and Slava Voynov, the two defensemen he played with most when not with Doughty. It was less than 300 minutes of even-strength ice time total, but his Corsi-for percentage was better away from Doughty (65.5 percent) than with him (59.4).
In the postseason he's been a force in possession and with traditional statistics. In 24 playoff games he has six goals and 12 points. The six goals are the most of any defenseman in the 2014 playoffs, and his 12 points trail Doughty, McDonagh, the Chicago Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook and P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens.
"Jake plays with a lot of swagger; a good swagger," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "He's really coming into playing the right way at both ends of the ice. That goes a long way in his evolution as a player. It is a big difference on the back end compared to last year for sure."
Meanwhile, Girardi has been a possession anchor for the Rangers in this series; the Kings have had 57 percent of the shot attempts at even strength with him on the ice.
One issue is the Rangers have been better when Girardi is off the ice. And in a series where the Kings were almost certain to force a lot of faceoffs in the Rangers' end Girardi has been sheltered from those draws. He's been among the team leaders in percentage of faceoffs in the offensive end, but the Rangers still are getting beat in possession when he is involved in the action.
Muzzin might have been a relative unknown before the 2014 playoffs, but he looks like a very capable No. 2 or No. 3 defenseman now. Girardi has been a standout defensive defenseman in years past, but that hasn't been the case in the Cup Final.
Most of the margins in this series have been slim, but the second half of each team's top defense pairing has not been one of them.