The Day of Reckoning in the National Hockey League has arrived as Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers kicks off tonight. And it must be said again: what a dream match-up for the NHL, as its two biggest markets get set to do battle on its biggest stage. The league’s growth-and-revenue train just seems to keep on chugging.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. With breakdowns, analyses and predictions flying every which way around the Internet at this point I thought I’d go ahead and throw in my two cents as well. Here’s my breakdown of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
Advantage: L.A. Why?
For a team that needed a compass to find the net during the regular season, the Kings have been goal-happy this post-season, a juxtaposition which seems to have perplexed just about everybody but the Kings themselves. This offensive explosion has mostly come courtesy of the Kings’ top two lines which have just been rolling since Game 1 of Round 1 - the Kings’ top six scoring forwards have combined for a staggering 108 points through 21 games, compared to just 68 from the Rangers’ top 6 forwards in 20 games played. And that’s not even counting the top scoring defencemen for each team - Drew Doughty for the Kings and Ryan McDonagh for the Rangers. The Kings’ forwards have also controlled offensive play more effectively than their Blueshirt counterparts, having won more face-offs and taken more shots on average per game. A higher mean Corsi % for the Kings’ forwards through these playoffs also indicates much higher average shot quality and higher shooting percentages, which has translated to better scoring chances and more goals.
All of these stats aside, however, the real x-factor separating the forwards of these two teams is the tremendous depth down the middle that LA boasts, an element that has really made itself apparent in these playoffs. When Lord Stanley is on the line, nothing is quite as advantageous as a corps of centremen that lead by example in every facet of the game. The Kings’ top 2 centres, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, are 1 and 2 in playoff scoring respectively. Behind them, Tyler Toffoli and Trevor Lewis anchor lines with speed and unrelenting forecheck. Last but far from least, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll provide sound defensive responsibility, log big penalty killing minutes and win key face-offs for their team. Of those 6 centres, the only minus players are the two who have actually played the least at that position: Richards and Lewis, who have spent more time on the wings during the post-season, meaning that none of the 4 full-time centres these playoffs for the Kings are in the red. Even considering this, however, these are still 6 centremen who are among the best at what they do best, and who know what it takes to win a championship. When you stack these guys up against the Rangers’ centres, there really isn’t much competition. New York’s top centre these playoffs has been Derek Stepan, whose health has been questionable since the injury he sustained against Montreal. Behind him, Derick Brassard has been a solid # 2, but they don’t get much out of the rest of the corps, save for perhaps Dominic Moore, who has been heart and soul for this team so far, but it may not be enough. Brad Richards isn’t the Conn Smythe winner he was a decade ago, and Brian Boyle hasn’t been that much of a factor.
Ultimately, L.A.’s forwards are just too deep, big, strong, intimidating, as well as highly skilled and under-rated skaters, and are just too much for the Rangers to match. Advantage L.A.
Advantage: New York. Why?
The only thing weirder than L.A.’s newfound offence is the disappearance of their trademark defensive stinginess which also occurred at the beginning of the playoffs. While scoring a playoff-leading 3.45 goals per game on average, they’ve also been allowing a second-worse 2.85 goals per game as well. The premium on skill and puck-carrying from the back end in L.A. has exposed their lack of size and toughness on the blue line beyond the top pairing of Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell. Matt Greene, Robyn Regehr and Jeff Schultz haven’t played enough in these playoffs to really make a difference in that respect. Conversely, the New York Rangers’ d-men have played admirably despite playing just 1 game shy of the maximum 21. The top pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have been the anchors of this team so far, playing the number 1 penalty killing and power play units while both average 25 minutes a night. Behind them, a great supporting cast of young, talented blue liners has been steadily holding the fort well for Alain Vigneault’s group, including Marc Staal, Anton Stralman, John Moore and mid-season acquisition Kevin Klein, all of which have rather quietly turned in extremely solid performances while registering a combined plus 20 rating. Their size and toughness will also be better equipped to handle the big Kings forwards, while the smaller Kings d-men will have to work much harder against the faster Rangers forwards in order to be just as effective. Advantage New York.
Advantage: L.A. Why?
This is the toughest one to call. We’re talking about two of the very best goaltenders in the world. Two all-world goaltenders, whose stats have almost identical for years. There isn’t a whole lot to separate them on, even though they employ different styles. The difference here isn’t within their physical capabilities, but rather within their mental and psychological resolve, as well as their experience. You could argue that Lundqvist has had a better playoffs, and that the Kings have had to overcome more shaky goaltending en route to the Final. However, there is simply no overlooking the proven winning pedigree of a goaltender like Jonathan Quick. There’s no denying that Henrik Lundqvist is the heartbeat of his team, and has been for a long time, and has largely carried the Rangers through these playoffs. But…yes, there is a but… when the chips are down and everything is on the line, I’m not sure how you just don’t give the advantage to the guy who’s simply been there before. Quick won a cup, during a run when he was his team’s best player. He’s got the experience and mental fortitude, and knows exactly what to expect and how to prepare himself. And while many have pointed out that he has looked a little off balance in these playoffs, he has still made very timely saves in every series to keep his team in it. They know they can count on him to have their backs. Jonathan Quick just knows how to win. Those are the intangibles that come with having done all of this before. Advantage L.A.
Advantage: L.A. Why?
Alain Vigneault managed to take the reigns of a rather discombobulated team and turn them into a conference champion in just one year. (Somewhere John Tortorella is weeping). This is his second trip to the Final in 4 years and looks as capable and equipped as any coach out there to win a championship. However, I give the advantage once again to L.A. in this regard simply because in a short amount of time the L.A. Kings have become the on-ice embodiment of their coach. Los Angeles has the potential to create a dynasty with their hockey franchise and much of the credit is due to the culture and demeanour and attitude that Darryl Sutter has instilled in this team. He has earned the respect of every last player on that roster, and the result is a group of players who genuinely want to play and give their all for their coach. Sutter’s system is a proven one, and has earned his team 3 straight trips to the Western Conference Finals and 2 trips to the Cup Final in 3 years without much divergence from what brought them success in 2012, such as air-tight defence and staunch discipline. Much like the goaltending, it’s the pedigree here that counts. Sutter sets the tone and attitude for his team every night, and they abide by it like the law. Compound that with the tremendous mutual respect shared by the players and the coaching staff, and you’ve got yourself a winning formula.
Kings in 5.
Agree of disagree below.