by Paul West
On the eve of the Stanley Cup Finals, many are of the opinion that the New York Rangers only have a chance if goalie Henrik Lundqvist can ‘steal a game’ from the Los Angeles Kings. The estimation of the Rangers as decided underdogs comes from a few things: the acknowledged superiority of the Western Conference, the fact that the Kings are two years removed from a Stanley Cup title, the Kings’ unprecedented run to this year’s final and the fact that the Kings are stacked with talent. While these things are all true, the idea that Lundqvist ‘standing on his head’ is the Rangers’ only hope is mistaken. The Rangers have more than just the hotter–and arguably superior–goaltender. The Rangers have used skill, depth, speed, defense and balance to get to this point.
Speed and scoring ability
Since taking some time to adapt to coach Alain Vigneault‘s system, the Rangers’ highly talented forwards have played freely and in sync. One of the Rangers’ defining characteristics is the fact that that they’re one of the fastest teams in the NHL. This is best exemplified by youngsters Chris Kreider, who broke into the 2012 playoffs in record-setting fashion, and Karl Hagelin, who showcased his wheels at the 2014 Sochi Olympics against world-class competition. Kreider and Hagelin aren’t just fast, either; they’re physical. Kreider is a barreling attacker whose gear changes at times seem ridiculous, and Hagelin is big and physical in both the offensive and defensive zones.
The Rangers’ two young speed merchants anchor a dangerous transition attack that’s led by excellent playmakers. Derek Stepan continues to emerge as both a passer and scorer, and his feel for his teammates’ movements continues to improve. Resurgent veteran Rick Nash, one of the skill players who suffered under the high-strung and offensively challenged system of previous coach John Tortorella, has used his size, speed and puckhandling ability to create scoring opportunities for everyone on the ice. And increasingly popular forward Mats Zuccarello continues to combine bowling-ball forechecking with a nose for the puck and an uncanny knack for passing in congested areas.
A lot of the Rangers’ scoring comes in transition, from turnovers created by a strong defense. Tortorella’s departure and Vigneault’s addition didn’t make the Rangers an offense-only team, it led to them being a balanced team. Even though they’re able to score in bunches, the Rangers still have the tough signature defense that allowed them to make a 1-0 lead stand up in Game Seven against Montreal. The blueshirts’ ability to turn defense into offense makes them a threat to anyone they face, even big and physical teams like the Kings. The Rangers still block shots prolifically, Dan Girardi is a superior decision-maker in every zone, the Rangers protect the front of the net effectively and Ryan McDonagh continues to emerge as one of the world’s elite defensemen. McDonagh is big, strong and can skate, and he’s probably the Rangers’ best two-way defenseman since Brian Leetch.
One of the most important keys to the Rangers’ success is that they no longer rely on a handful of skill players to generate offense. None of the Rangers has more than 13 points this postseason, but eight of the Rangers have 10 points this postseason. Often, as in Game Seven with Dominic Moore’s lone goal, the blueshirts’ offensive breakthroughs come from their third and fourth lines. 6’7″ Brian Boyle and other big checking-liners are capable of generating offense with good spacing, persistent forechecking, good timing and underrated puck skills. Zuccarello often plays with the Rangers’ third and fourth lines, where his supernatural field vision allows him to set up players like Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Derrick Brassard for important goals. You can’t beat the Rangers by shutting down and particular line or player, and this means they can create a matchup problem at some point in the game depending on the opponent’s strategy. The Rangers can play in fast-paced shootout or a defensive struggle, and this versatility makes them an enormous matchup problem.
Tenacity and togetherness
Much has been made of the fact that the Kings are the first team to win three seventh games on the road in one postseason. Much has also been made of the fact that the Kings play in the Western Conference, which is generally accepted as stronger than the Eastern Conference. The Kings also came back from a historic deficit against the San Jose Sharks, which is not to be discounted. But lest we forget, the Rangers have had a tough go of it themselves. They went seven games against the Philadelphia Flyers, who spent the series trying to physically intimidate them. They went seven games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, against whom they were an underdog and had to win Game Seven on the road. Then they went up against the Montreal Canadiens, who had just beaten a perennial powerhouse in the Boston Bruins and were riding on emotion and the power of belief. Through it all, they rallied around the personal tragedy of elite scorer Martin St. Louis, who suddenly lost his mother early in the postseason. The Rangers sent their entire team to the funeral, and used his loss–and the emotional resilience of Dominic Moore, who had endured terrible family tragedy not long before–to become closer as a team and play for each other as a blue-clad family. Henrik Lundqvist has spent nine years as a dominant netminder, but this is his first Stanley Cup Finals. He’s won Olympic Gold and Silver, most recently with Hagelin as his teammate for the Swedish national team, and a Stanley Cup would be a long-awaited addition to his Hall of Fame career. Earlier this year, King Henrik signed a contract extension and then began the season in a slump as bad as any he’s experienced as a pro. He weathered the criticism in stride, and has rebounded to have a postseason that has him in the discussion as a Conn Smythe candidate–and the Rangers are using his competitive fire as yet another emotional spark. Last but not least, this is the twentieth anniversary of the blueshirts’ last trip to the Cup Finals, when they broke the ‘curse of 1940’ after one of the most thrilling NHL postseasons ever. This is a team with a lot to play for, whose players have been through ups and downs. They play as hard for each other, and with as much togetherness and community, as any team in recent memory.
More than a long shot
After struggling early, the Rangers spent the last two-thirds of the 2014 season evolving into a multidimensional threat. The Rangers have speed, youth, veteran leadership, line balance, and one of the NHL’s best team defenses. They have the necessary intangibles, and they’re managed by a coach who knows how to get the best out of them. All of this, along with Henrik Lundqvist’s greatness, is why the Rangers are more than just a long shot to win their first Cup since 1994.