It kind of goes without saying, but the longer a team is able to hang around in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the stiffer the opposition becomes. For the Rangers, they'll face their toughest challenge this postseason beginning Wednesday when they begin their matchup with the Los Angeles Kings. Deft in puck possession, finishing ability, and just about all areas of their game, Los Angeles' product is well-tuned and incredibly polished. But there's no use in counting the Rangers out, and we'll get to why in a second. Here's a look at some of the different areas of this series, and how they might play out when the puck is dropped for Game 1.
Want to know how to play the defense position? Well just watch Drew Doughty and Ryan McDonagh over these next four-seven games, and you'll have a pretty good base. The Kings blue line shares some tendencies with the Rangers: It It is good at creating turnovers, and quickly getting the play going in the other direction. Doughty is chief in that department, but Alec Martinez and Matt Greene are also capable of starting the rush. It's also a unit that can physically match up with the Rangers forecheck, and has the skating ability to keep pace. (This is a defensive corps much quicker than Montreal's.)
Quietly—or maybe more announced now—the Rangers have assembled some very steady defensive depth. Aside from the top pairing of McDonagh and Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman has been an incredibly effective 1b. And Kevin Klein and John Moore/Raphael Diaz haven't made any glaring blunders, while performing the roles of a fifth and sixth defenseman.
Where McDonagh has elevated his game beginning late in round two, and really more so in round three, Doughty has been an absolute monster all postseason. He's slowly climbing the charts for most points all-time by a defenseman in a single playoff run, racking up 16 points in 20 games.
Los Angeles' defensemen may provide a bit more offensive punch, but the Rangers group plays a bit better in its own zone.
Edge: Rangers (slight)
There will be some familiar names here, so hopefully a little bit of new information will be conveyed. Some of the heavy-hitters for the Kings are faces the Rangers are used to seeing: the likes of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (formerly of the Flyers), and Marian Gaborik (formerly run out of New York for no good goddamn reason.) The latter has truly recovered admirably since getting shipped west at this season's trade deadline, thanks in large to new linemate Anze Kopitar.
More on L.A.
More on L.A.
And that Kopitar guy is worth talking about a bit. He's one of the best players at his position, or really in the entire league for that matter. A 61 CF% during the regular season, Kopitar is an absolute beast on the puck. And when he's not steadily maintaining possession, he's hounding the opposition to get it back, as Kopitar is a top defensive forward in all the league.
Which means tough sledding for Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, and Chris Kreider when they're on the ice. Darryl Sutter and Joe Quenneville were pretty content to let Kopitar and Jonathan Toew s lines go head-to-head. The Kopitar and Stepan lines will surely be a key matchup in this series, while Kreider again may be the key to the puzzle with his game-breaking speed.
The Kings are not short on depth, either. While Kopitar and Gaborik have been centerpieces of the team's offense, Carter and Richards both center their own separate lines, and Carter especailly has found great chemistry (and success) between Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.
While Staal and Stralman will see a lot of time against that Carter line, which forward trio Alain Vigneault chooses to deploy against them presents another interesting decision. The Derick Brassard line makes a lot of sense, while Vigneault hasn't been shy about using his fourth line of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and Derek Dorsett in a shutdown role as well.
Regardless of what the matchups are, expect a high-octane, fast-paced game. These are two teams that like to turn defense into offense, and get going in transition at any opportunity possible. That makes gap discipline and lane clogging especially important, but if the Rangers are able to replicate close to what they did in Game 6 against the Canadiens, they'll be in good shape.
We got into how the Rangers molded their penalty kill to negate what Montreal did so well. In Doughty, the Kings have the same power play quarterback and dynamo on the blue line that the Habs had in P.K. Subban. It's the other elements of the Kings special teams unit that are more lethal that present new hurdles. Kopitar is a wizard off the half wall, while Dustin Brown is a gritty net-front player. Los Angeles' power play has been clicking at a 25 percent clip in the postseason, a significant jump from its 15 percent rate the regular season. Statistically that means it due for a regression, and with the way the Rangers have been killing penalties, this area shouldn't be a major cause for concern. As always, the biggest key will just be staying out of the box.
One of the biggest question marks for New York entering this series has to be its own power play, which showed signs of life early in the Montreal series, before finishing the Eastern Conference Final on 1-for-16 slide. What's key here for New York though is not to abandon the gameplan. Overall in round three the Rangers power play was up over 21 percent, and even when it wasn't scoring, was getting the looks it wasn't in the early rounds. A big part of that is the improved health of McDonagh, the return of Kreider, and the improved play of Martin St. Louis.
One floundering element of the Rangers power play is the point spot occupied by Brad Richards. While New York is short on other options, Richards simply doesn't get shots through to the net very often, which allows teams to load up on McDonagh, or cheat on St. Louis in the high slot, a play the Rangers often look to generate.
For the Rangers, this series won't hinge on its power play, while it will need to be good enough not to lose them games.
Plenty of people already labeled the Western Conference Final as the true championship. That the winner of the Blackhawks-Kings series would roll over the Rangers. If you're looking for one neutralizing factor on the Rangers side of things, look no further than Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers netminder is leaps and bounds better than Jonathan Quick. Of all the positional battles in this series, this one has the least parity, and it's not really close. Quick's 5v5 sv% in the Chicago series was .910, which is nothing short of downright mediocre. He allowed four or more goals three times (the last three games of the series), and three or more goals five times in that series.
Lundqvist's accomplishments and numbers don't need to be repeated. He's the single-biggest reason the Rangers are where they are right now, and has been nothing short of a miracle worker.
Which brings me to this next point: While Lundqvist is the Rangers clear Conn Smythe winner, and the most important single ingredient to a Stanley Cup, he's also the most guaranteed commodity. As the Blueshirts know what they'll get out of Lundqvist, it's the other cast of characters that remain unknown, and need to steep their games up.
But back to Quick, as the Blackhawks proved how important it is to simply throw pucks on net when you're facing a mediocre goalie. The Rangers haven't been a bad possession team all postseason (50.4 CF% and 50.5 FF% 5v5 with the score close) meaning if they keep up those rates, they'll have enough of the puck to score against Quick.
The Los Angeles goalie cemented his stellar national reputation by winning the Conn Smythe trophy during the Kings 2012 Cup run. But that was then, and this is now. The Rangers are 3-7 this postseason when scoring two goals or fewer, and if Quick plays around the level he was at in the Western Conference Final, it's really up to the Rangers offense to help Lundqvist out of the scoreboard.