Today, From the Press Box:
This past week, the Conference Finals, two very entertaining series concluded and the NHL is left with a marquee matchup of the New York Rangers vs. the Los Angeles Kings, the two largest media centers in the USA.
We will review have these teams made it to the final series, with their successful outcomes in the Conference showdowns.
Eastern Conference Final
Montreal vs. New York
This series took an unexpected turn in Game 1, while the Rangers were in the process of running over an emotionally drained Canadiens team in a 7-2 rout. The Broadway Blueshirts poured four goals past starter Carey Price in the first two periods and there was no surprise that he did not appear in goal for the third period. While Peter Budaj mopped up, it was revealed that Price might have been lifted for an injury as well.
The truth came out in the aftermath when the Habs announced that he had indeed suffered a leg injury when a Rangers forward crashed into the Montreal crease area, pinning Price's leg by the post, in an awkward manner. That development looked like it would tip the scales heavily in favor of New York, particularly when the Canadiens opted to insert minor-league goalie Dustin Tokarski instead of Budaj for Game 2.
The rationale for this decision was based on the fact that Tokarski had been getting lots of work with the Canadiens AHL affiliate as their starter and was used to rigors of a condensed schedule as well. He had also enjoyed NHL success in his brief promotion during the regular season. Still, you had to wonder how he would look, especially in contrast to the Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
He would provide that answer by matching Lundqvist, almost save for save over the next three games, buckling only briefly enough in the overtime frame in Game 4. That was when this series finally looked like Canadiens unexpected playoff run might be derailed.
Martin St. Louis, who lost his mother, at the start of this set, had become another focal point for New York, owing to the timing of this family tragedy. His team rallied around him and he provided the dramatic end to Game 4 when he roofed a wrist shot over Tokarski's shoulder, giving the Rangers a 3- 1 series lead.
The Canadiens responded with their best offensive game of this post-season when they rolled to a 7-4 win in Game 5, sparked by a three-goal effort by Rene Bourque. The Habs actually drove Lundqvist from this game by the halfway point of the game. In an unusual twist the Rangers rallied to tie things at 4-4 following a quick three-goal rally that occurred shortly after the goaltending switch. A late second-period goal by Bourque restored a slim Montreal lead and perhaps just as importantly, caused the Rangers to not consider reinserting Lundqvist in the third period.
The sixth game was obviously a highly anticipated match, with the prevailing sense that whoever could grab control of this contest would win this series. Of course, a New York win would do that, but onlookers felt this game was their best chance to advance, with the odds tilting heavily in Montreal's directly if the series could reach a Game 7.
The wildcard in Game 6, particularly after his early ousting in Game 5, was Lundqvist. A great goalie and team leader, you had to know that he was capable of a huge rebound effort and that the team would rally around him. With all that was riding on this outcome and two teams who got here because of their ability to counter attack, the game opened in a very tentative manner and no scoring occurred until late in the second period when Dominic Moore converted a pass from Brian Boyle for the opening score. This fourth-line goal turned out to be the decisive tally as the Rangers proceeded to limit Montreal to only 18 shots on goal, with King Henrik getting the shutout.
Western Conference Final
Chicago vs. Los Angeles
Meanwhile in the Western Final, we got just what everyone hoped for. These two teams had been to the top of the NHL mountain with recent Cup wins on the resumes of most players in this series. No amount of adversity was going to be too daunting, and that's just one reason why it was easy to see this set going to seven games … and beyond.
The Hawks made the first statement in Game 1, when team leaders Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith both scored in a workmanlike 3-1 home ice win, to extend their record to a perfect 7-0 in the playoffs vs. LA, in the last three playoff sets of games played in the Windy City.
The Kings looked like they might be headed for a similar fate in Game 2 when trailed 2-1 through 40 minutes. Instead, they sent shock waves through the United Center by pouring five unanswered goals past the hawks to even the series with this 6-2 trouncing - a statement that this series was going to get serious.
The Kings amplified that message in a pair of home-ice wins to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, with 4-3 and 5-2 winning scores.
All the talk at this point seemed to be about the Kings' depth, physicality and goalie Jonathan Quick once again rising to the playoff challenge with an effort similar to his outstanding form during the 2012 post-season. Another theme that was emerging was the Kings big advantage at center ice, something that was seen as potentially the biggest area of disparity between these teams, in favor of the Kings. Indeed, Los Angeles was able to afford a matchup of Anze Kopitar going head-to-head with Toews, while Chicago wanted to free their captain from this matchup.
However, the defending Champs rewrote the narrative with a dramatic double overtime win in LA, capping the 5-4 win with Michal Handzus conversion 22 minutes into extra time, on a night when the teams combined for 89 shots on goal.
Buoyed by that critical Game 5 win the Hawks again leaned on their big guns in Game 6 and this time it was two goals by Patrick Kane and another one by Duncan Keith that helped secure a narrow 4-3, where the Hawks overturned a 3-2 third period deficit with a pair of markers in the final 10 minutes of the third frame.
Then it was time for two of the greatest words in hockey playoffs lexicon - Game 7. In a raucous arena like Chicago's United Center, the conventional wisdom states that the visiting team needs to survive the first 10 minutes. That did not happen for the Kings as Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews helped the Hawks to an early 2-0 lead. At this point the Kings really show their mettle as goals by Jeff Carter and "Mr. Game 7" Justin Williams scored goals to know the proceedings and quiet the arena. Even though Patrick Sharp responded with a go-ahead goal before the end of the first period, fans had a strong sense that the outcome was far from decided.
The teams traded goals in a second period where Chicago outshot LA by a 16-4 margin, again relying on Quick's goalkeeping to stay afloat.
Midway through the third period, Marian Gaborik evened the score with his 12th goal of the post-season. That's tops among all skaters, not a bad trade deadline pickup. That was enough to send this game to overtime to decide the series.
With a trip to the Cup Final on the line, the hope was for a good goal to decide the outcome. Unfortunately, the Hawks Nick Leddy will have nightmares about the finish for a long time. A point shot was directed at the Hawks goal by Alec Martinez and in attempting to block it, Leddy had it deflect behind Corey Crawford to give the Kings the decisive victory in this series, for my money the best set of matches in this post-season.
Stanley Cup Final - From New York to LA
In handicapping this series, we cannot overlook the potential of a "hangover" factor, much like the one that put Montreal behind against the Rangers in the last round. That goes "triple" for the Kings, who have had to win three Game 7s on the road, first against their biggest rivals from California (San Jose and Anaheim) and then in Chicago.
There is no room for a letdown now, because the speedy Rangers (who split the two regular season games played with LA) are well equipped to make the Kings pay for a lacked of preparedness to start this series. Both teams have already played three long series (LA 21 games, NYR 20) so there is no real advantage to either side.
It seems to boil down to an examination of team strengths and intangibles.
The goalies are both team leaders here, with both Lundqvist and Quick capable of stealing games on their own if they get to the top of their game. Defensive play also defines both teams. In LA's case, it's a team-wide commitment to a physical style of play that is designed to slow and wear down the opposition. For the Rangers, the skating game will be their way to pressure the Kings into their own close-checking approach.
In terms of defensive depth, LA is led by Doughty, but also boasts key two-way contributors in Martinez, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin. The Rangers counter with Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. I give a slight edge to the Kings because of their offensive ability here. With all the signature offensive players on both sides, it seems strange that the first impression left by both clubs is in defending rather than scoring.
The Rangers have rallied around Marty St. Louis and Rick Nash has picked up his scoring pace. They are also getting production from each of their four lines.
The Kings are going to press the size advantage and their center ice depth as they, too, will roll four lines.
The confidence level of the Kings is at a high point, which will mean that they will never be out of a game or this series because they know they can come back from a slow start. The Rangers can point to the fact that they, too, were not heavily favored at the start of each of their previous series.
On the eve of this series, both clubs can make the case that they have built a steady momentum and a Cup win is their destiny. I think this series will be defined by low-scoring games and in the end, the Kings' size will be the difference in a six-game triumph, with Drew Doughty winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.