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Stanley Cup Preview

Who has the edge in this East Coast–West Coast battle for hockey supremacy?

The Kings and Rangers drop the puck in Los Angeles tonight to open the Stanley Cup final. The Kings are looking for their second title in three years, and the oddsmakers have made them the favorites. That’s no surprise — we’ve spent most of the year talking about how much stronger the Western Conference has looked, and the Kings have already beaten three excellent teams to get here.

But while the Rangers may have had the easier path to the final, they’re a dangerous team to dismiss. After a rocky first half, they’ve come together nicely under a new coach, and they’re riding the most dangerous weapon in playoff hockey: a hot goaltender.

So are the Kings really better? And if so, by how much? To find out, let’s have a look at who owns the edge in 10 key categories, along with our official Stanley Cup prediction.

Goaltending

Rangers: We might as well get this category out of the way first, since it’s going to be the big story. Goaltending is always the most-dissected factor in any playoff series, and it’s hard to remember a final in which the matchup has seemed as crucial as this one.

Henrik Lundqvist is the most important player in the series, and no individual performance will go further in deciding who comes away with the Cup. The math is fairly simple: No team does a better job of controlling possession and winning the shot battle than the Kings, and if that continues, the only way the Rangers can win is if their goaltender outplays the other guy.

Luckily, that’s essentially what Lundqvist has been doing for the last six weeks, and it’s why the Rangers are here. He hasn’t been unbeatable — he’s been pulled twice, including as recently as Game 5 against the Canadiens. But he’s been remarkably consistent, giving up two goals or fewer in 15 of his 20 starts. And when he’s playing well, he exudes the sort of “can’t beat this guy” vibe that can get teams to change their style, forcing extra passes and waiting for the perfect shot.

A skeptic might point out that in Ray Emery, Steve Mason, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Dustin Tokarski, Lundqvist hasn’t had to outplay an elite goaltender yet. Against the Kings, he will. Maybe.

Kings: Jonathan Quick remains one of the most divisive players in hockey. Where some see a superstar who has the ability to elevate his game at crucial moments (and has a Cup ring to prove it), others see a goaltender who’s been merely average over the course of his career while playing on a great defensive team. Some see a stunning history of highlight reel saves; others see a guy who’s often left diving across the net in desperation after overplaying the puck. Some see a goalie who could outplay Lundqvist; others see one who struggled just to stay even with Corey Crawford.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, although it’s worth pointing out that Quick isn’t exactly coming into the final on a hot streak, having given up 13 goals over the Kings’ last three games. But he did earn his ring in 2012 by beating a future Hall of Famer in Martin Brodeur, so it’s not like the Lundqvist matchup is going to intimidate him. And the Kings probably don’t need him to win the head-to-head matchup — a draw would suit them just fine.

Edge: A big edge to the Rangers. Goaltending is notoriously difficult to predict, and anything can happen in a short series. Quick could absolutely outplay Lundqvist, and if he does, the Kings should win the series easily. But if not, the Rangers have a real shot at the Cup, and Lundqvist would be a sure thing for the Conn Smythe.

Defense

Kings: Drew Doughty is probably the league’s best young defenseman, and you could make a decent argument for him being the league’s best, period.1 The rest of the blue line is also young, with Slava Voynov (24) and Doughty’s partner, Jake Muzzin (25), both logging big minutes, while dependable third-pairing guy Alec Martinez (26) recently added Game 7 OT winners to his skill set. Those four are supported by veterans Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, while Robyn Regehr could return from injury later in the series.

Rangers: Like L.A., New York’s blue line is young and talented. The oldest defenseman on the roster is Dan Girardi, which doesn’t seem right because he has never seemed that old.2 His partner, Ryan McDonagh, has been one of the breakout stars of the playoffs, and is tied for the team lead in scoring after lighting up the Canadiens. The Marc Staal–Anton Stralman pairing doesn’t get much attention but has been very solid. Kevin Klein and John Moore make up the third pairing, or at least they will once Moore returns from suspension after Game 1.

Edge: The Kings, although not by as much as you might think.

Forwards

Kings: Any discussion of the Kings’ forwards starts with the guy it’s all built around: Anze Kopitar, the two-way center who has probably earned a spot in the discussion for best all-around player in the league. He’s the team’s leading scorer and a possession monster, and he and his wingers can match up well with just about any forward line in the league.

One of those wingers is Marian Gaborik, a trade deadline pickup who leads the team in playoff goal scoring. Jeff Carter is the second-line center and has nearly matched Kopitar’s offense. Those three stars are surrounded by a solid cast of veterans, role players, and young players. And then there’s Justin Williams, an underrated player for most of his career who suddenly transforms into Superman whenever a Game 7 rolls around. More on him in a bit.

Rangers: Any discussion of the Rangers’ forwards starts with the guy it’s all built around … um. Huh. About that. Unlike L.A. (and just about every other elite team out there), the Rangers don’t have a dominant no. 1 center, and they don’t have a clear-cut star forward who stands out above the rest of the team as “the guy.”

What they do have is a deep group that can roll three and even four strong lines. Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash, and Brad Richards are the big names, and while none has exactly dominated the way Kopitar or even Carter has,3 they’ve each contributed timely goals. Guys like Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello have also chipped in, and Chris Kreider has been arguably the team’s best forward since returning from an injury.

Edge: The Kings get the edge on star power, while the Rangers have better depth. It will be interesting to see against whom L.A. deploys the Kopitar line, especially when it has the last change at home.

Ex–Blue Jacket Factor

Kings: The Columbus Blue Jackets joined the league in 2000, ostensibly as an expansion franchise but really as a front to launder Eastern Conference stars into Los Angeles Kings. That’s my theory, at least, and it’s held up with a pair of current Kings, Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik.

Ex-Flyer Carter came over at the 2012 deadline after just half a season in Columbus, and helped jolt a slumping Kings offense all the way to a Cup title. Two years later, the Kings played the same card by plucking Gaborik out of Columbus, and they may wind up with the same result. He has already scored 12 goals during this playoff run, beating his regular-season total of 11, and often looks like the Kings’ most dangerous player.

Rangers: That Eastern team that traded Gaborik to the Blue Jackets in the first place: That would be the Rangers, in a deal that landed them three players on their current roster. None of Derek Dorsett, Derick Brassard, and John Moore would be considered stars, but they’ve all been solid support pieces.

And then there’s the biggest Blue Jacket star of them all,4 Rick Nash. He came over in a 2012 offseason deal, and while he hasn’t been dominant in New York, he’s still a key player. An extended slump earlier in the playoffs has left him with just three goals through the Rangers’ first 20 playoff games; they may need him to chip in at least that many in the series to have a shot against L.A.

Edge: Kings. Seriously, NHL GMs, just make a deal for R.J. Umberger now and book your appearance in next year’s final.

Special Teams

Kings: The Kings’ power play has been a pleasant playoff surprise, clicking at a rate of 25.4 percent in the postseason after managing just 15.1 percent during the regular season. Their penalty kill has been just OK, clocking in at 81.1 percent in the playoffs after an 83.1 percent regular season.

Rangers: The Rangers’ power play has slumped badly in the postseason, at one point enduring an 0-for-36 slump. It’s been better lately, and they’ve improved their percentage all the way up to 13.6 percent. That’s still well off of their regular-season total, which was just a middle-of-the-pack 18.2 percent. But New York has made up for that lack of power-play success on the penalty kill, where they’ve been successful at a very good 85.9 percent clip. That’s not a fluke, as they were equally good during the regular season, at 85.3 percent.

It’s also worth noting that the Rangers have had 17 more power plays than times short-handed, because Gary Bettman rigged the playoffs for them and that’s just how hockey works sometimes.

Edge: This one really depends on whether you prefer the recency of the playoff numbers or the larger sample size of the regular season. I’d go with the latter, which would result in an edge for New York, but in either case the advantage is more likely to go to whichever team can stay out of the penalty box.

Game 7 Magic

Rangers: The team has won two Game 7s this year, and Lundqvist has earned a reputation as “Mr. Game 7,” based on his record-setting five-game win streak.

Kings: The team has won three Game 7s this year, and Williams has earned a reputation as “Mr. Game 7,” based on his record-setting 14 career points and lifetime 7-0 record.

Edge: Wait, what if there’s a Game 7 and it goes to overtime and then Justin Williams gets a breakaway on Henrik Lundqvist? I’m scared, you guys.

Coaching

Kings: On entertainment value alone, Darryl Sutter is the league’s best coach, and it’s not close. His postgame press conferences have become appointment viewing. And those facial expressions … what more could you want from an NHL head coach?

Oh, right, actual coaching. Luckily for the Kings, Sutter’s pretty darn good at that too. After uneven stints in Chicago, San Jose, and Calgary, Sutter has been a perfect fit in Los Angeles. His low-key personality appears to have rubbed off on his team, which never seems to panic when things go badly. That could explain why he’s now the NHL’s all-time winningest coach in Game 7s.

Rangers: While you technically can’t trade coaches in the NHL, the Canucks and Rangers essentially did last summer, with each team hiring the other’s fired bench boss. Given that John Tortorella has already been pink-slipped again in Vancouver, we can probably go ahead and call the Rangers the winner in that swap.

While much has been made of the contrast between Tortorella’s temper and Alain Vigneault’s comparatively laid-back approach, the latter’s preference for a balanced attack and rolling four lines has been at least as important to the Rangers’ success. It took a while — New York didn’t look anything like a contender through the season’s first half — but the patience paid off.

Edge: Let’s give a slight edge to the Kings, based on Sutter’s Cup ring. But Vigneault has been here before, leading the Canucks to a seven-game heartbreaker against the Bruins in 2011, and is one of just 10 coaches in NHL history to lead two different teams to the final.

Buyout Candidate Named Richards

Kings: Mike.

Rangers: Brad.

Edge: Rangers. While his long-term deal may still make a buyout inevitable, Brad Richards has been playing a crucial role for New York’s run. With only eight points, Mike Richards has just been a supporting player for the Kings.

Professor Fancystats Says …

Kings: Los Angeles is the darling of the modern stats crowd, a dominant possession team that has led the league in Fenwick Close5 two years running. That includes this season, when their mark of 56.7 percent put them a hefty 1.5 percentage points ahead of the next best team, the Blackhawks.

Possession isn’t everything, of course, but the Kings’ edge translates to their getting an average of five more pucks at the net than their opponents every night. That’s a significant difference and presents a lot of opportunities for the sort of lucky bounce that can decide a series. And it’s no accident that the Kings are so good in this area; it’s a key part of Sutter’s coaching philosophy.

Rangers: While the Kings get most of the love here, the Rangers were a very good possession team in their own right. They finished sixth in the league in Fenwick Close, which is why so many stat fans had them pegged as the dark-horse favorite to come out of the Metro.

Edge: The Kings, although the margin isn’t huge. L.A. has already beaten two excellent possession teams in Chicago and San Jose, and will need to do it one more time to capture the Cup.

Potential Cup Presentation Awkwardness

Kings: Dustin Brown already has one presentation under his belt. That was two years ago, and he struggled with it, but you’d have to assume he’d be better this time around.

Rangers: The Rangers head into the final in an interesting and exceedingly rare situation — they don’t have a captain. They shipped Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay in the St. Louis trade and haven’t replaced him, choosing to just go with a trio of alternates. All three took part in the Prince of Wales Trophy presentation, but you have to assume that wouldn’t cut it when it came to the Cup. That leaves open the small but nonzero possibility of postgame chaos, as an impatient Gary Bettman waits for them to figure out who should get the honors.

Also, the last time they won the Stanley Cup, Bettman showed up with this haircut.

Edge: Huge edge to the Rangers. If you enjoy seeing Bettman get flustered, your rooting interest in this series is clear.

The Prediction

Kings: This should be pretty straightforward. The Kings were the better team during the season, both in terms of win-loss record and the underlying stats. They play in the better conference. And they’ve had a much tougher road to the final than the Rangers. Sure, after three straight seven-game series, fatigue could be a factor. But the Rangers have played just one game less, so any advantage there would be minimal. And as best we can tell, L.A. seems reasonably healthy.

Every indicator is telling us the same thing: The Kings are the better team. They should win, and maybe even fairly easily.

When in doubt, go with the better team, right?

Rangers: I picked the Rangers as one of my top Cup contenders back in the fall, which felt like a bit of a stretch considering they were coming off a sixth-place finish in the East. In theory, I should stick with them and maximize my “I told you so” potential. But more importantly, they have the better goaltender. In a short series, that negates all sorts of other advantages.

When in doubt, go with the better goalie, right?

My pick: The better team wins out, but Lundqvist keeps it closer than it should be. Kings in seven. 

Filed Under: NHL, NHL Playoffs, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

Archive @ DownGoesBrown