Here’s one prediction for the Stanley Cup final that will come true no matter what: Whoever wins (or loses, for that matter), they will have played an incredible amount of hockey.
If you look back at the first three playoff rounds, the one thing that stands out about both the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers is just how hard of a road they have taken to this point.
Los Angeles is the first team ever to slog through three consecutive seven-game series to play for the Cup; New York had to win two Game 7s – including a comeback from down 3-1 in round two against the Penguins – and took a six-gamer against Montreal last week.
Even if the final is a sweep, the Kings will have played 25 games, tied for the third-most ever. If this final goes six or seven games, Los Angeles will set a new record – surpassing the 1987 Flyers and 2004 Flames, who both lost in the final after 26 games.
That should give a slight edge on the rest side to the Rangers, which is a good thing given they appear to have few other advantages.
Key question: Can anyone stop Anze Kopitar?
There will be a fierce debate over who deserves the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but if the Kings prevail, it’s hard not to see Kopitar as the leading candidate.
A star for years, the 26-year-old has elevated his game in this postseason, handling the team’s toughest defensive assignments and putting up better than a point per game against some very good teams in the West. His underlying numbers suggest that he won’t be able to keep that scoring pace up, but the Rangers lack that kind of elite centre, and their best option, Derek Stepan, is playing hurt.
These teams both have deep forward groups, but centre ice is one clear advantage the Kings should have – and it’s an important one.
Key question: Who wins the Drew Doughty-versus-Ryan McDonagh battle?
One thing that’s for certain is this is going to be a fast series. And that’s going to be driven by the stars of both bluelines, Doughty and McDonagh, who will be on the ice more than any other skaters.
Doughty has had more of the headlines in his career due to the Kings’ Cup win two years ago and his heroics for Canada at the Olympics, but McDonagh, a key U.S. Olympian himself, is coming off a remarkable third round in which he rang up 10 points in six games for the Rangers and soundly outplayed Montreal’s P.K. Subban.
Both teams lean on their top four defencemen heavily, and there’s an argument to be made the Rangers can match the Kings in that regard. But that’s only the case if McDonagh can continue to turn heads and compensate for partner Dan Girardi, who could struggle against the Kings overwhelming forecheck.
Key question: Which Jonathan Quick do we get?
Goalies are always the wild card when you’re trying to predict a series. On paper, Henrik Lundqvist gives New York a definite edge, as he’s the kind of consistently excellent netminder who can steal a Cup in the right situation.
Quick has already been brilliant in leading L.A. to a championship, in 2012. But he has also allowed a pile of questionable goals in these playoffs and had a mediocre year overall, making it all but impossible to know what he brings to this series.
Neither team expects much from their backups, so they can’t afford either starter to go through a slump. Based on statistics from the regular-season, when the Kings outshot opposing teams at even strength by a total of more than 400 shots, Lundqvist will be the busier man.
He’ll have to be the better one, too.
The Kings will win if …
Quick plays Lundqvist to a draw and the Kings’ big guns, led by Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, stay hot. They also have a size advantage that could be a big X-factor.
The Rangers will win if …
They keep games low-scoring and close, don’t give up too many shots, and allow Lundqvist to do the rest.
Prediction: Kings in six