Given the predictions coming from hockey analysts, the New York Rangers would do the NHL a world of service and just capitulate and concede the Stanley Cup to the Los Angeles Kings – who set an NHL record of winning three consecutive Game 7s in the same playoffs.
Interestingly enough, many of those same pundits were writing the Rangers off because they won two Game 7s.
Every time someone has tried to bury the Rangers, they have refused to go gently into that good night. While the Rangers embrace the underdog role, they are conceding nothing.
“So throughout these playoffs, and it’s not gonna change now, we’ve been the underdog,” Alain Vigneault told Justin Tasch of the Daily News. “But what we’ve done is we’ve focused on how we play and what we need to do on the ice, and that’s definitely what we’re gonna do here come Wednesday.”
Hockey analysts point to the Western Conference’s dominance as a leading factor in their predictions of a Kings Stanley Cup championship. However, a closer look hardly points to any such dominance.
Of the last 13 Stanley Cup winners, just seven have come from the Western Conference. If you go all the back to 1991 (the year that the Oilers/Flames run ended), the numbers are dead even – 11 titles per Conference.
Unlike the rich playoff history between the Rangers-Canadiens, the Rangers-Kings playoff history is brief. The teams have met twice in the playoffs – both times in the NHL’s Preliminary Round. In 1979, the Rangers began their unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final with a two-game sweep (in a Best-of-Three showdown).
Two years later the Rangers took the Best-of-Five series in four games. That playoff matchup turned ugly following the first period of Game 2 when both benches emptied for an old-fashioned brawl that featured six game misconducts (three per team), and a Rangers team record for penalty minutes in one period (125) and a game (145). Rookie Ed “Boxcar” Hospodar led the way with 39 PIMs.
Even Nick Fotiu, who was serving an eight-game suspension for going into the stands in Detroit, got involved as he raced down to the glass to pull a Kings fan of one of his teammates.
Truly a game that the Hanson Brothers could be proud of.
The season series offers no insights into the Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers defeated Los Angeles on October 7 as the Blueshirts registered the first of three road victories (in nine games) to start the season.
About five weeks later the teams finished their season series as the Kings shut out the Rangers 1-0 with the win going to a goaltender who isn’t even in the organization any more (Ben Scrivens).
Both teams have evolved and changed since that November 17 tilt. Each team’s leading playoff goal scorer (Martin St. Louis and Marian Gaborik) wasn’t even a glimpse in their GM’s eye.
I see the Rangers road to victory following the path of the following keys:
In each of my previous playoff previews, two keys that have followed the Rangers are Special Teams/Discipline and having their best players be their best players. Their checklist for victory begins with these two factors.
Los Angeles begins the SCF as the highest scoring team in all of the playoffs, averaging 3.48 goals – compared to the eighth rated Rangers (2.70). The Kings power play is fifth in the playoffs (28.6%) compared to the tenth rated Rangers (13.6%).
Fortunately for the Rangers, their penalty killers have been the second best in the playoffs (85.9%) and probably would have been the best except the Flyers posted their numbers against the Blueshirts. The Kings penalty killers were rated ninth (81.2%).
Obviously, the easiest way to slow down the Kings power play is to play smart hockey and eliminate bad penalties – especially the careless ones in the offensive zone.
When the Rangers are on the power play they need to be disciplined enough to follow Wayne Gretzky’s advice: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Therefore, the Rangers must stop chasing the elusive “perfect shot for the perfect goal” and look to get more rubber on goal – and more bodies in front of the goaltender.
The Kings are the second-best team on faceoffs in the playoffs. The Rangers are going to lose their fair share of draws, but they can help mitigate the problem by staying disciplined and remembering their defensive assignments.
The deeper you get in the playoffs, the more teams need their stars to lead the way. The Kings have the overall advantage in terms of SCF experience. As a result, St. Louis and Brad Richards have to step up and show their less-experienced teammates the way. Even SCF rookie Rick Nash can channel his Team Canada experiences to help his teammates brave the big stage.
It is important that the Rangers big guns fire in this series because you know that the Kings big guns (Gaborik, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar) will. If the Rangers do end up losing to the Kings, karma will probably end up biting the Blueshirts in the arse as Gaborik would probably walk away with the Conn Smythe Trophy.
No Fly-Bys: This key is a two-parter. The Kings are a very physical team so the Rangers will have to step up their physical play to match the Kings and to slow them down through the neutral zone. The Rangers must follow their pokechecks with body contact and not get caught off balance and out of position. On offense, it means Rangers forwards have to stop their habit of flying by the top of the crease and setting up shop at the side of the net. They would be in much better position to pounce on rebounds if they positioned themselves at the top of the crease as opposed to side of the net.
The Rangers also need to do a better job of finishing around the net. I don’t know if the Rangers inability to score off rebounds is a result of good defensive play or really bad finishing skills. No wonder the Blueshirts don’t always like to go to the front of the net.
Third Period: If the Rangers want to know what their best game plan is they just need to watch the tape of the third period of Game 6 against Montreal. The Blueshirts did not sit on their one goal lead. Instead, they forechecked the Habs into submission. The more the puck is in the Kings zone, the more chances the Rangers will have to score – thus limiting the number of scoring chances the Kings will have. They need to put pressure on the likes of Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell, or even Robyn Regehr if he is healthy enough to get into the lineup.
Quicken The Pressure: Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick has the ability to win a series on his own. However, Quick has struggled this year. The Rangers need to get some traffic in front of Quick and force him to scramble to find the puck. In such situations, he will have a tendency to drop to the ice early – thus leaving the top of the net uncovered. When Quick is off his game he will often fight the puck and be overly aggressive. As a result, the Rangers will want to get Quick moving and let his aggression pull him out of the play. On other thing to watch is to see if Quick taking a shot off his right collarbone during practice on Tuesday factors into his play during the series.
Early and Often: I have talked about the idea that momentum does not carry from game-to-game. If that were the case, we would be watching the San Jose Sharks play the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, there is fatigue-factor that can carry over from game-to-game – and it isn’t necessarily a physical fatigue.
Constantly having to rally to just survive and advance can take as much out of a team as playing a lot of games in a short period of time. The Rangers need to come out extra strong to start the series and fire the opening salvo by winning Game 1. In addition to coming out strong in Game 1, they need to be strong at the start of each game. A lot of their success against Montreal was their ability to play with the lead.
While much has been made about the Kings resiliency and their ability to bounce back, the Blueshirts need to make Los Angeles chase them on the scoreboard. Even the most flexible rubber band can be overextended and break.
Torts/AV: While Vigneault has the team buying into his system, some of the Rangers success in the playoffs goes back to the defensive foundation that John Tortorella developed. Truth be told, the Rangers could have, and probably should have, been playing an AV-like style under Torts, but the former coach just never seemed to have enough confidence in his team.
The Rangers are going to need to harken back to their Tortorella days when it comes to defending against the Kings. Los Angeles is a team that far and away led the NHL in hits so the Rangers had better be prepared to return to their “Black-and-Blueshirts” ways. No one expects the Rangers to play the trap, but they’re going to have to clog the neutral zone.
Five-Foot Rule: The Rangers have to obey the five foot rule in terms of defensive responsibility and in neutral zone play. Any time the Rangers have the opportunity to control the puck within five feet of their blue line; they must clear the puck out and resist the urge for a costly turnover.
Conversely, when the Rangers get within five feet of the Kings blue line they can’t afford to turn the puck over in the neutral zone. If there is no play to be made, then the puck must be sent in deep to avoid turnovers and potential odd-man rushes. Playing some “dump-and-chase” hockey will also help them set up their forechecking – provided the Rangers remember the “chase” part.
Despite those who see the playing of the games as a mere formality, this series is not that easy to figure out. Yes, it does appear that the Kings are a team of destiny who are enjoying the “magic carpet ride”. Winning three consecutive Game 7s, all on the road (including being down 3-0 to San Jose) does speak to that Los Angeles mystique.
However, the Rangers can lay claim to their own mojo working in their direction with a pair of Game 7 victories, including their first ever 3-1 series comeback. Toss in their ability overcome their Bell Centre of horrors and the Rangers can claim a share of that magic carpet.
The season series between the two teams really doesn’t play into figuring out the Stanley Cup because the two teams haven’t seen each other in over six months.
The Rangers have been used to the underdog role since the beginning of the playoffs. They were too small to beat the Flyers. They weren’t offensive enough to beat the Penguins. They weren’t fast enough to beat the Canadiens.
The Rangers still managed to find a way to beat all three teams to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
Alain Vigneault spent seven years as coach of the Vancouver Canucks so he is familiar with the Los Angeles Kings. Av’s Canucks beat the Kings in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals in 2010. The Kings got their revenge two years later in a five-game Western Conference Quarterfinals victory as part of the Kings march to the championship.
In the end, AV’s first-hand experience dealing with the Kings and the Rangers edge in goal and on defense will prove to be the difference with the Rangers Game 7 mojo outlasting the Kings Game 7 mojo as Lord Stanley’s Cup returns to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 20 years after a hard fought seven-game series.
Hopefully, it won’t be another 20 years between Rangers Stanley Cup championships.