The New York Rangers have been many things in their 88-year history: the villain, the big-city big-budget fat cats, the retirement home for past-their-prime vets, and of course, perhaps most frequently, the underachievers. Plucky underdog is not a role this franchise historically fills, but it's the one these Blueshirts find themselves in as they get set to take on the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Consider this: to get to the finals, the Kings knocked off the leagues second best team (the Anaheim Ducks), the fifth best team (the San Jose Sharks), and the defending champions, the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks. You could make a compelling case that any of those three teams would best the Rangers more often than not in a best of 7 format. LA is just two years removed from winning the cup themselves, and have since added a 40-goal scorer in Marian Gaborik to a championship group that remains largely unchanged otherwise.
So yes, the Rangers will be billed as the underdog headed into their first cup finals in twenty years; the overachiever, the team that overcame the personal loss of a star player to rally from a three-to-one deficit. But if these Blueshirts have taught us anything, it's not to write them off too soon.
Few teams struggled to score as mightily as the Kings in the regular season. The postseason? That's another story. LA is averaging a robust 3.48 goals per game since the second season began. An unsustainably high 11.3% shooting percentage in the playoffs has something to do with it, but so does the acquisition and subsequent acclimation to the lineup of Marian Gaborik. The former Rangers' sniper has found new life in LA, leading all playoff scorers with 12 goals and placing fourth with 19 points, and, along with youngsters Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, has given the grinding Kings a needed dose of speed and skill. Anze Kopitar leads all postseason scorers with 24 points, and were he not located in LA or cursed with a funny name, would be deified in the same manner as Jonathan Toews. The Rangers calling card up front is their depth and speed. 2.70 goals per game is not going to wow anyone, but Alain Vigneault is comfortable with any of his four lines on the ice in any given situation. In a series that features two teams that have played a ton of hockey over the past month and a half, that means something. The Rangers' speed will give the Kings some issues, as Chicago's did in the last round, but ultimately, LA's newfound ability to finish gives them the edge up front. Edge: LA
Over the past several seasons, few teams have been stauncher defensively than the Kings, but that hasn't exactly been the case in the playoffs this year. LA has surrendered a robust 2.86 goals per game in the postseason, eons worse than the miniscule 1.50 they allowed in their championship run in 2012. Is it the defenseman? Is it Jonathan Quick? The likely answer is some combination of the two. The Kings have been uncharacteristically unattentive in front of their own net at times this postseason, and it's cost them. With all due respect to Ryan McDonagh, the splendid 24-year old still has some work to do before he joins the ranks of the super-elite defenseman like Drew Doughty, but beyond Doughty, the Rangers depth, and in the what have-you-done-for-me-lately atmosphere of the playoffs, recent performance, gives them an edge. The Blueshirts are surrendering just 2.25 goals per game in the postseason, almost exactly on par with their regular season average. That low total has a lot to do with the play of the second pair — Marc Staal and the chronically under-appreciated Anton Stralman. Those two helped keep the Rangers afloat when McDonagh struggled in the first two rounds, while Kevin Klein, the Rangers top possession player in the postseason (55.1% Corsi), has made an impact in limited ice time. With Jake Muzzin having raised his game, the Kings generate much more offense from their back line, but it's about defending — and few teams do that better than the Rangers. Edge: Rangers
Of the two, there's no question which one is playing better right now. Henrik Lundqvist enters the finals with a .928 SV% and 2.03 goals against, while Jonathan Quick, in the midst of his worst postseason of the past three years, boasts an inflated 2.86 GAA and below average .906 SV%. That being said, the Kings have done a horrid job of allowing their netminder to see shots — many of the goals Quick allowed in the Chicago series he never even reacted to — so it's not all on him. When on, the US Olympian is nearly impenetrable — he posted a ridiculous .946 SV% en route to the 2012 cup — and the same can be said about Lundqvist, who has turned in some banner performances to get the Rangers to this point. Stylistically, it's a matchup of opposites — the aggressive, flexible, speedy Quick, versus the composed, deep-in-the-net butterflyer Lundqvist. It's difficult to give either man the edge. Edge: Even
In the regular season, the Kings' special teams were middling at best – 27th on the power play, 11th on the PK. But, LA's power play has been scaldingly hot throughout the postseason, converting 25.4% of the time. The penalty kill has been good but not great – 81.2% — but that's more than offset by the robust PP numbers. Meanwhile, the Rangers have been…well, the Rangers. Excellent PK (85.9%), mitigated by an at times putrid power play (13.6%). The Blueshirts have been okay with the man advantage when they're able to get the puck in the zone, but even when they do get set up, their lack of natural finishers — and a booming shot from the point — hurts them. LA has the advantage. Edge: LA
Alain Vigneault has done a phenomenal job with this Rangers' team, but Darryl Sutter has the hardware. Vigneault wouldn't be the first coach to lose his first time around ('11 with Vancouver) and win his second if the Blueshirts pull it off — Sutter did the same thing, losing in '04 with Calgary before bringing the cup home two years ago with LA. But for now, the experience of having won it before gives Sutter the obvious — but very slight — edge. Edge: LA
The unquantifiable "team of destiny" factor. The Rangers have overcome a lot to get here — no one gave them a chance down 3-1 to Pittsburgh, but than Martin St. Louis' mother passed away and the entire team seemed to change. They gelled, perhaps out of the understanding that they were now playing for something greater than themselves. The Blueshirts are choc full of good stories — let's not forget Dominic Moore's comeback from personal tragedy — and have the look of one of those teams (the '07 NY Giants for example) that just gets on a roll and overachieves. We'll see if it lasts. Edge: Rangers
There's a lot of factors that come into making this prediction. Will the Kings be tired? Is there something wrong with Jonathan Quick? Can Henrik Lundqvist steal the series? What we do know is this: over time, things tend to revert back to the norm, meaning this will be a low scoring series. The Kings have been finding the net at an unprecedented rate this postseason, and that won't continue…but also don't expect them to allow nearly three goals per game as they have through the first three rounds. The Rangers, the best 5-on-5 team in the postseason with a 1.33 goals for/against ratio, will need consistent production from their power play to have a chance — remember, those even strength numbers came against the inferior east. Taking game 1 will be integral — LA has been inconsistent, and it's not out of the realm of possibility they could no-show after an emotional and tiring Conference Finals, similar to Montreal last round. Ultimately though, LA is just too talented. They're far and away the best team the Blueshirts have faced thus far, and will eke out a tightly contested, long series. LA in 7.Tags: Alain Vigneault, Anze Kopitar, Darryl Sutter, Drew Doughty, Henrik Lundqvist, Hockey, Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings, Marian Gaborik, Martin St. Louis, New York, New York Rangers, NHL, Ryan McDonagh