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.
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.
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.