Monday, June 9, 2014
Stanley Cup Finals: It’s the Kings’ to Lose
The 2014 NHL playoffs have been one of the better playoffs in recent memory. There have been seven series that reached seven games, only one sweep and only one five game series (both in the first round). There have also been 30 overtime periods in this season's NHL playoffs (17 in the first round, six in the Conference Semifinals, five in the Conference Finals, and two in the Stanley Cup Finals so far). Only one series throughout the playoffs did not have an overtime period — that was the Rangers vs. the Flyers, a seven-game series in the first round.
In my opinion, it simply does not get more exciting than overtime during the NHL playoffs. While March Madness is certainly a contender, you have to deal with an overabundance of timeouts in college basketball as you near the end of the game. In the NHL, it can end at any moment. You have to keep watching. And you can go a full 20 minutes of play without a commercial and that's simply good news.
All that being said, in mid-April, if you had told me your prediction was the Los Angeles Kings (sixth in the Western Conference) versus the New York Rangers (fifth in the Eastern Conference) in the Stanley Cup Finals, I would have bet a lot of money against you. That's not to bemoan the Rangers and the Kings. They are both very good teams, but, well, there were other teams that were more obvious favorites.
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins looked like rather clear choices to make a run at the Stanley Cup. The Bruins managed 3.1 goals per game, third best in the NHL and only 2.1 goals per game allowed, second best in the NHL. But the Bruins lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in seven games.
Likewise, Pittsburgh dominated the Metropolitan Division. Statistically they were not quite as impressive as the Bruins, but 3.0 goals per game scored and allowing 2.5 goals per game is nothing to sneeze at. Moreover, the Penguins were all domination on the power play, scoring 23.4 percent of the time. And yet, the Penguins lost to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in seven games.
The Rangers journey to the Stanley Cup Finals was a grueling one. It took them seven games to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. Then it took them another seven games to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. When they finally left behind the Pennsylvania opponents, they managed to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in only six games.
The Rangers had a good season. They managed 96 points, not as much as they had in 2011-12 (the last full season) where they had 109, tied for the most in the NHL with St. Louis. The Rangers haven't been in the Stanley Cup Finals in 20 years, when they beat the Vancouver Canucks in seven games back in 1994. (Since then, the New Jersey Devils have been in the Finals five times, winning three of those. The Islanders have not appeared since losing in 1984.)
The Rangers were good statistically, but by no means dominant. They were number 18 in the NHL in scoring with 2.6 goals per game. They were much better defensively, fourth in the NHL with 2.3 goals allowed per game. Offensively, they've improved a little bit, but not a ton. Henrik Lundqvist has also been marginally better, but nothing to write home about. They managed to beat good teams to get themselves to the Stanley Cup Final. But I would have never picked them to come out of the Eastern Conference alive.
In March, after the acquisition of Ryan Miller, the St. Louis Blues looked like the team to beat, certainly in the Western Conference. Then the Blues lost their final six games of the season, getting shutout three times and scoring a total of eight goals in eight games during April's regular season. They plummeted in the standings and ended up facing a tough Chicago Blackhawks team that sent the Blues packing, thinking of next season, and in dire need of another goal scorer.
Still in the Western Conference, the Kings looked like the third best team in California. The Ducks and Sharks seemed far more likely to make a run toward the Stanley Cup. The Ducks were the best offensive team in the NHL in 2013-14 scoring 3.2 goals per game. And they were shabby on defense either, allowing just 2.5 goals per game – good for ninth in the NHL. The Sharks had a more balanced approach with 2.9 goals per game — sixth in the NHL; and allowing 2.4 goals per game — fifth in the NHL. Meanwhile the Kings relied entirely on Jonathan Quick's goaltending. The Kings' 2.0 goals per game allowed was the best defensive showing in the NHL. However, their scoring of 2.4 goals per game was among the worst in the NHL. The only teams that were worse? Buffalo, Florida, Vancouver, and New Jersey. None of those teams made the playoffs.
However, in the playoffs, the Kings' offense decided to wake up. In the playoffs they have averaged around 3.5 goals per game. Adding a goal per game when your top goalie only allowed 2.07 goals per game during the regular season sounds like a lot of wins to me. However, Quick has been less than his usual self in the playoffs. In 23 playoff games so far, Quick has one shutout, has allowed one goal four times, two goals six times, three goals four times, four goals five times, five goals twice, and seven goals once. That's eleven games with two or fewer goals and twelve games with three or more goals. That's not what anybody has come to expect from Jonathan Quick.
I think the best way to present the surprise of where the Kings are now is to ask: If I told you Jonathan Quick would allow over 2.8 goals per game, how far would you expect the Kings to get in the playoffs? With their typically dismal offense, I would not have put them past the first round. Indeed, the Kings barely escaped the first round, being down 3-0 to the Sharks in Quick's worse three game span perhaps in his entire career. But the Kings beat the Sharks in seven games. Then they beat the Ducks in seven games – proving who the best team in California really is. Then they beat the Blackhawks in seven games. And now they're up on the Rangers 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals — only two wins away from hoisting the cup of cups.
And I think they'll do it. It's not much of a prediction to say a team up 2-0 will win two of the next five games, but don't forget, the Kings won games one and two at home. They're now traveling to New York and Madison Square Garden for two games against a team with a lot to lose. Winning one of those games is not going to be easy. If the Kings lose both away games, they lose all momentum and the Rangers will have a swift chance to win game five in Los Angeles and win the series in New York in Game 6.
But here's how I think it will go down. The Rangers will win game three, 3-2. The Kings will come back in game four, winning 4-2. This will deflate the Rangers enough so that the Kings will manage to win game five in Los Angeles 3-1.
It's not the ending I would write, but it is the ending I'll predict. An excessively exciting playoffs can only end with a relatively boring final three games of the Stanley Cup Final. What else would you expect from teams you didn't expect to be there in the first place? I hope I'm wrong and we're in for a few more overtimes and another game seven, but I think the Kings are just too feisty for the Rangers. They're scoring a lot of goals on every line and are simply showing that they want it more. Yes, the Kings will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup for the second time in three years — a feat which has not been accomplished since the Detroit Red Wings won back to back championships in 1997 and 1998.