The never-say-die Kings take on the upstart Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers for the rights to claim Lord Stanley’s Cup, starting Wednesday night at the Staples Center. Los Angeles will play for the Cup for the second time in just three seasons; the Rangers are in their first Finals since winning the championship in 1994 against the Vancouver Canucks.
These are no longer the Kings of old
As I watched Alec Martinez’ drive in overtime deflect off two players and perform a Matrix-style, physics-bending parabolic arc past goaltender Corey Crawford into the net, one nagging inner doubt was completely exorcized: this is no longer the same sad-sack franchise of so many previous downtrodden seasons. Sure, they won the Cup in 2012, but their resiliency this year in the face of adversity (an NHL record three consecutive game seven road wins in one playoff season) proved that was no fluke. As I wrote a month ago, these Los Angeles Kings were built for the playoffs.
How so, you ask?
The answers to that question coincide neatly with both the resurgence of the franchise and the five reasons why the Los Angeles Kings will defeat the New York Rangers and etch their names onto the Stanley Cup one more time. Without further ado, here they are:
Home ice advantage against the Rangers
It’s been five playoff series since Los Angeles had home ice advantage, dating back to the second round of the 2013 playoffs where they gutted the Sharks in seven games. The Staples Center holds at least 18,118 for hockey, and you can bet it will be filled to the rafters with fans, celebrities and yes, a healthy sprinkling of blonde bombshells. It’s Hollywood, you know.
Home ice isn’t as big of an advantage in the NHL as it is in other sports (think basketball), but the energy the crowd provides, the negative energy they impart upon the invading New Yorkers and the intimate knowledge the host team has of all the rink’s bounces and angles gives the Kings one significant edge against the Rangers.
A Cerberus of snipers
Admittedly, I’ve bitched and moaned about the Kings’ problems putting the puck in the net this season, punctuated by this open letter to Anze Kopitar urging him to shoot the puck. But that was before Dean Lombardi’s brilliant deadline trade for Marian Gaborik, who ultimately fit like a glove on Kopitar’s hip.
Mixed metaphors notwithstanding, the acquisition of Gaborik sparked the long-dormant Kings offense. Although L.A. averaged just 2.42 goals per game in the regular season, they scored 2.84 per game after picking up Gaborik. More impressively, they lead all playoff teams this year with 3.48 goals per game. The Rangers, by contrast, have scored 2.70 goals per game, after averaging just slightly less during the season.
Anze Kopitar (24 points), Jeff Carter (22) and Marian Gaborik (19, along with a playoff-leading 12 goals): a three-headed offensive monster that the Rangers will have extreme difficulty containing.
The best defense in the league
Jonathan Quick is a terrific goaltender, but so is Henrik Lundqvist. In fact, there are legitimate reasons some will advance that the Rangers have a slight edge in net during this series.
However, although Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Anton Stralman and company have been terrific as a unit during these playoffs and the Rangers finished fourth in goals against during the regular season, it was Los Angeles that led the league in fewest goals allowed — not to mention the most hits. Their aggressive, physical defense (L.A. threw over 700 more hits during the year than the Rangers) gives them a big advantage in this series.
Speaking of defense, here’s Martinez’ dramatic game-winning goal:
Mr. Game 7
There’s just something special about right winger Justin Williams. He’s won two Cups and holds or shares two NHL records in game sevens of playoff series: most points (14) and most goals (7, tied with Glenn Anderson).
There will be stars and heroes all over the ice for both teams starting Wednesday night, but nobody embodies true character and the will to win better than Justin Williams. Naturally, he had a goal and an assist in the series-clinching victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings possess “an inner arrogance and quiet confidence”
Speaking of Williams, he’s gone on record characterizing the attitude that the Kings carry in the playoffs as “an inner arrogance and quiet confidence.” Not only do they talk the talk, they walk the walk: Los Angeles was the first team in NHL history to win three straight game sevens on the road to reach the Finals.It’s more than just that. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards have now led two different teams to history-making series wins after going down 3-0. Drew Doughty should be wearing a cape. Jonathan Quick may be the best ‘big game’ goaltender in the league. Dustin Brown had his worst regular season in nearly a decade, then put the team on his back during game seven against Chicago. For the most part, these Kings have played together for years and have developed outstanding chemistry. By act, attitude and deed, it shows.
It took General Manager Dean Lombardi eight years to build this Kings team. It will take about two weeks to see if he’s built his second champion in three seasons.