Even before Alec Martinez' slapshot glanced off of Tyler Toffoli and Nick Leddy's sticks, there were articles surfacing on the internet explaining why either Western Conference Finals participant would take down the New York Rangers with ease. The writers cited the Rangers' mediocre standing in the regular season, their lack of success in the playoffs, their difficulties scoring in the regular season, and even that the Western Conference is just plain better. Those writers are seriously underestimating the Rangers, a team that might just shock the hockey world and bring the Stanley Cup back to New York. Here's why.
Henrik Lundqvist- I want to start off with the simplest reason. Henrik Lundqvist is a better goalie than Jonathan Quick, who has been less than stellar in these NHL playoffs. Lundqvist has been excellent, boasting a 2.03 goals against average, and a .928 save percentage. It's Lundqvist's ninth season in the NHL and his first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, which took twenty grueling games to reach. The "King" knows how difficult it was to get to the Cup, and how difficult it will be to ever get back to the Cup. His determination alone could be a huge factor, as well as the Rangers strong defense around him. Lundqvist lost the Olympic gold medal this year, is he going to let himself lose the Stanley Cup as well?
The Rangers Actually Belong- Many have deemed the Rangers a lucky team that doesn't even deserve to be in the Finals. Whether it's an easy run, or Carey Price's injury, excuses have been made for how the Rangers got this far. Having the fifth most points in the Eastern Conference is nothing to brag about for the Rangers, but let's take a closer look at that. New York started the season trying to learn new coach Alain Vigneault's system, struggling out of the gate terribly. When the Blueshirts finally started to get the hang of the system around December 21st, they went on a run that represents how dangerous of a team they truly are with their understanding of the system.
Since 12/21 the Rangers notched the second most points in the NHL with 66. The Kings, on the other hand, only managed 46 points in that same span. The Rangers' solid play continued through the playoffs, while the Kings have meandered their way through some difficult match-ups to face off against them.
Depth- My favorite argument for why the Rangers are truly a talented team is depth. In game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers fourth line was on the ice for 36:55. In game 7 between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, their two fourth lines combined were on the ice for 36:03 in regulation.
Since Alain Vigneault trusts his fourth line so much, he can implement quick shifts as he did in both game sevens the Rangers played. Players won't tire out by the end of the game, and in case of overtime the Rangers will have fresher legs.
Besides that, the Rangers are able to get scoring from all four of their lines, which was displayed in Dominic Moore's series clinching goal vs. the Canadiens. The Rangers' bottom two lines held the Penguins bottom two to zero (!) goals, while playing solid, puck-possession hockey.
Meanwhile, the best line for New York this season has been their third line of Mats Zuccarello, who led the team in regular season points, Derick Brassard, and Benoit Pouliot. When the third line is able to produce as well as the top two without it being an indication of struggles from the top two, that's huge.
How They Got Here- It certainly hasn't been an easy run for the Rangers, as until the Kings defeated the Blackhawks, the Rangers had the most games played in a single playoffs going into the Stanley Cup Finals in NHL history. New York let the Flyers hang around, then the Penguins get ahead, then failed to dispatch the Canadiens on the road. The good news is, as battle tested as the Kings are, the Rangers are too.
The Lundqvist-led squad has played in four potential elimination games already, lost in overtime, lost in ugly fashion, yet here they are. Rick Nash went fourteen games without a goal, Ryan McDonagh went ten games without a point, Chris Kreider missed a bunch of games, Derick Brassard missed a couple of games, Derek Stepan missed a game, and Henrik Lundqvist was truly awful for a pair of games, yet here they are. Heck, the Rangers even managed to get passed a stretch of not scoring a powerplay goal on 36 straight attempts.
If everything goes right for the Rangers, they roll out four highly capable lines, three solid defensive pairings, and potentially the best goalie in the NHL. There's no glaring weakness yet, other than that the Rangers have not had everything go right at once in these playoffs so far.
Road Warriors- The Rangers were 25-14-2 on the road this season, which was good for the best in the Eastern Conference, and 2nd best in the NHL behind the Colorado Avalanche. Home ice advantage is not a necessity for the Rangers to win, as the second defensive pairing in Marc Staal-Anton Stralman has been equal if not better at times than the first pairing in Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi. The Kings won't be able to simply use last change to get favorable match-ups and expect to win, as the Rangers will be able to thwart that with their depth, as explained above.
Winning on the road was not fluke at all, but instead a testament to the depth and the excellent coaching by Alain Vigneault. "AV" has prepared all four of his lines to be ready in every type of situation, so in the case of an icing or an unfavorable change, the Rangers are not lost at all.
Chris Kreider- Goalie Destroyer- If the Rangers find Jonathan Quick to be playing too well, they could always call on Chris Kreider to knock him out, as they did for Carey Price. Martin Jones is too good of a replacement? Kreider can "accidentally" trip onto him when he's blatantly knocked down from behind. Chris Kreider's job is not to speed past defensemen on breakaways and score dirty goals in front after using his strength to make room for himself, but instead it's to cause as much physical pain for the goalies he plays against. I think we will be seeing AHL Manchester's Mathias Niederberger in net by game three. (This is all a joke if that's not obvious)