Friday, April 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Tom Jones' Stanley Cup final preview

Neither team should be here, you know.

Take the Rangers. They should be gone. Long gone.

Back in the second round of these Stanley Cup playoffs, they trailed the Penguins, 3-1, in their best-of-seven series. They were 60 minutes from golf season, just one loss from another disappointing playoff exit. There were whispers that it was time to fire general manager Glen Sather, blow up the whole roster, start over from scratch.

The Kings? They were even more of a long shot. They were down three games to none in the first round to the Sharks. Only three teams in NHL history had come back from such a deficit to win a best-of-seven series.

But, in New York, the Rangers rallied around the death of Marty St. Louis' mother, stunned the Penguins then went on to beat the Canadiens to reach the final for the first time in 20 years.

In Los Angeles, the Kings turned into cockroaches. That's a compliment. You can't get rid of them.

They became the fourth team to erase a 3-0 deficit and win a series. They won Game 7 on the road in San Jose. They won another Game 7 in Anaheim after trailing that series, 3-2. They won another Game 7 on the road, this time in Chicago, after falling behind in that game 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3. As a result, they are in the final for the second time in three seasons.

Two teams. Two teams of destiny.

Just one spot for a storybook ending.

How will it all end? The unlikely final gets underway tonight in Los Angeles. Here's a look, and a prediction, for the 2014 Stanley Cup final.

Which team is better?

Let's put goaltending aside for a moment. The Kings are better than the Rangers. They are deeper. They have more scoring punch. They have the best non-goalie player in this series in defenseman Drew Doughty, who leads the league in average ice time in the playoffs at 27:50 a game and is an absolute beast. And they just got done passing out parting gifts to three of the top seven teams in the NHL.

Despite the rigorous and unusual route the Kings took to get to the final, it's not really a huge surprise that they are here. Before the season, many predicted the Kings would play for the Cup. After all, most of the players on this team won the Cup two years ago. The Rangers are a surprise. Few thought they would get this far.

Which goalie is better?

Before the past few weeks, you could flip a coin between the Kings' Jonathan Quick and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist. You might have even given a slight edge to Quick, the one of the two whose name is already on the Stanley Cup. But, at this moment, you have to give the nod to Lundqvist. He leads NHL postseason goalies in save percentage (.928) to go with his 2.03 goals-against average. Lundqvist is the reason the Rangers could steal this series. He has allowed only 15 goals over the past nine games.

Quick has been surprisingly leaky in these playoffs. In his 12 wins, he has given up 1.79 goals per game. In his nine losses, he has allowed 4.44 goals per game. He was a tad shaky closing out the Western Conference final, allowing five, four and four goals over the final three games. He's capable of playing much better.

Best in-season addition

You might think the Rangers adding St. Louis was the best move any team made at the trade deadline and, certainly, St. Louis has been clutch in big games for the Rangers, as well as an inspiration on and off the ice. But the move of the season was the Kings picking up former Blue Jackets (and Rangers) star Marian Gaborik. The Slovakian wing has 12 postseason goals, tops in the playoffs. He is among the leading candidates for playoff MVP.

Who needs to step up?

For the Rangers, it's Rick Nash. He's a sensational scorer during the regular season. A seven-time 30-goal scorer who had 26 this season, Nash has struggled in the playoffs. In 36 career postseason games, Nash has only five goals, including three in 20 games this postseason. He has become a responsible defensive player and a hard worker, but to heck with that. He needs to score if the underdog Rangers are to win.

For the Kings, as strange as this sounds, it's Quick. He's an elite goalie, but he has to play like one. He must be better than he has been of late.

Three things to watch for

1. The longer the series goes, the more it favors the Rangers. The Kings have gone the full seven games in each of their three series; the Rangers have only played one game fewer but seemed to be the fresher team in their series. The Rangers like to wear down opponents, especially the opposing defense. The Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens all looked completely exhausted by the time those series ended. The Rangers will try to do the same to the Kings.

2. If it gets to a Game 7, keep an eye on Los Angeles' Justin Williams. He is 7-0 in career Game 7s with seven goals and seven assists. He scored a goal and assisted on the winning overtime goal in Game 7 against the Blackhawks.

3. If it comes down to special teams, the Kings' power play is scary good. The Rangers have done a great job killing penalties, both in the regular season and the postseason. The Rangers' power play runs scalding hot and icy cold. Best that the Rangers play this series at 5-on-5.

Prediction

If it's a short series, the Kings will win. If it's a long series, give the edge to the Rangers. It does feel like the Rangers are out to "Win One For Marty,'' but the Kings are just better. Unless Lundqvist can steal a game or two, the Rangers might be overmatched. Kings in five.

   
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