New York Rangers vs. Los Angeles Kings: Stanley Cup Finals Preview

BILL SMITH/NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE/GETTY IMAGES

The New York Rangers have reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since their memorable Cup run in 1994, and in similar fashion, things have really coalesced for the team this season. Martin St. Louis landed in their lap at the trade deadline, Ryan McDonagh became a Norris Trophy candidate, and some of their skaters on the most modest contracts have become their biggest contributors.

The Los Angeles Kings are a powerhouse poised to win their second Stanley Cup in three years. They are literally the heaviest team in the league, featuring the NHL’s best defensemen and two of its premier centers. The rest of the roster is comprised of skaters with size, speed, and skill; they are shrewd decision-makers with the puck, and handle opposing puck-handlers antagonistically.

Both teams can strike off the forecheck and rush. The Rangers want to push the pace, involve their defensemen in the attack, and employ strong lateral and vertical puck movement. Fundamentally, the Kings want to do the same thing. The mobility of both teams’ defensemen on their zone exits, and their puck support and strength in layers in the neutral zone, have allowed them to be dominant puck-possession teams. (The Kings were first in the NHL in Fenwick Close and the Rangers were sixth in the NHL, third in the Eastern Conference.)

The NHL is a winner too; receiving the gift of teams from the two largest U. S. cities is not too shabby. There are the requisite telegenic stars, two teams that are playing with tremendous tempo, and lots of skill on both sides. Both sides survived multiple Game 7s to make it to the Cup finals, and both are on the precipice of making history for the most games played under the current playoff format to win a Stanley Cup. The road to this Cup has been long and arduous, and now a victor needs to be crowned.

Here are the salient questions.

Note: All advanced statistics used are from ExtraSkater.com, and conventional statistics are from NHL.com.

The Rangers have been the faster team against their Eastern Conference foes. Does this give them the speed edge?

 Absolutely not. The Kings are fast as hell, and they are also huge — so there is the issue of stopping very large, speedy skaters. The Rangers play man-to-man defensive coverage in their own zone, which unfortunately will pose a major problem for them against the Kings.

The best defense against the Kings is packing the middle like sardines, trying to force them to hesitate on pulling the trigger on shots, and forcing them to over-pass. Trying to win one-on-one battles against them is a recipe for disaster. They are bigger, faster, and more skilled than the Rangers. No one consistently wins one-on-one battles against this iteration of the Kings, and doing so for four games is a fantasy. There will be times in this series when the Kings win every board battle, accrue shot after shot, and pound the puck into Lundqvist until he freezes it or the puck slithers through.

Re-watching Game 6 of the Rangers-Canadiens’ conference final, it is startling how much time the Rangers were permitted when they controlled the puck, and how little punishment they took for carrying it. Montreal was dead tired by that point, and the Rangers were able to pound the Canadiens’ fatigued back end into mistakes, and utilize their own forwards’ speed advantage.

New York will attempt to deliver area passes to Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider, hoping that allows them an easy passageway to the offensive zone. Given Chicago forward Brandon Saad’s success against the Kings in the final three games, there is reason to believe that a talented power forward like Kreider could succeed. His 3.96 points per 60 minutes leads the playoffs for skaters with a minimum of 10 playoff games.

Yet, Los Angeles has home-ice advantage, and coach Darryl Sutter will utilize defenseman Drew Doughty as frequently as possible against the Blueshirts’ burners for the first two games, and avoid using Matt Greene. Sutter is not necessarily a coach to chase a match-up, but the Rangers’ taking advantage of the least mobile Kings defenseman is not something that Sutter will likely permit when he has the last line change.

New York has experienced pressure over 200 feet before, but nothing like what they are due to experience now. The Kings are significantly better with their sticks, more intuitive with reading the passing lanes, and better at sealing off offensive flow than any team the Rangers have seen. The Rangers are fast, but they are not going to win this series with their speed.

How does the Rangers’ defense fare against the Kings’ scoring offense?

New York’s defense will need to stay in front of the Kings’ speedy giants as best possible. But it seems unlikely the Rangers’ back end will be able to fully negate any net-front presence by the Kings because, well, nobody has before. The Blackhawks’ top-four defensemen are as good as any in the NHL, and they were repeatedly burned by the size and speed quotient of the Kings’ attackers in full acceleration toward the blue paint.

Unless Ryan McDonagh is cloned, the Rangers’ defenders will be forced to keep Los Angeles out of Lundqvist’s face. But mistakes will happen. (Marc Staal has been sneakily getting torched by opposing forwards all playoff long.)

There are four Kings’ players in the top five in points in the NHL playoffs, and Marian Gaborik and Jeff Carter are first and second in the playoffs in goals. Doughty has been brilliant, slightly better than Anze Kopitar, and through the three rounds played so far, would get IH’s vote for the Conn Smythe.

During the regular season, Jake Muzzin, Kopitar, Justin Williams, and Tyler Toffoli were in the top five in the NHL at controlling the highest percentage of even-strength shot attempts when each skater was on the ice. (They directed 60.4 percent or higher of shot attempts at opponents’ nets.) During the playoffs, the Kings’ core has continued to tilt the ice, even when they were up against two of the best puck-possession teams in the NHL – San Jose and Chicago – or facing an Anaheim team with two of the best forwards in the league.

A reason attributed to the Kings’ success has been documented by hockey analyst Eric Tulsky, who explains that the Kings are superb at preventing shots on opposing zone entries and, conversely, at manufacturing shots when they cross over the opposing blue line. Tulsky also makes a point of stressing how good the Kings’ active defensemen are at generating a shot on their zone entries.

This makes a ton of sense given how good the Kings are at making precise outlet passes from their own zone, and how they knife through the neutral zone, seeming to never break stride when they cross over the blue line. Players like Doughty, Kopitar, and Carter seem to effortlessly gain the zone entry while surveying their passing options, and all three have quick releases, allowing them to at least record a shot on net if the skating lanes become clogged.

Tulsky also cites the neutral zone as an area of mastery for Los Angeles. A lot of their success in the middle zone stems from some of the characteristics one would expect. The Kings employ tape-to-tape advancing of the puck, powerful skating with possession and awareness of where the flow of the puck support is coming from, and an ability to procure turnovers from opponents because of active sticks and big bodies who can quickly eliminate space and time by pressing the puck-carrier.

Over the last three series, the Kings have fared well against three of the best teams in the NHL on both gaining zone entries and stymieing opposing zone entries. They have generated rush opportunities from their strong play on and off the puck in the neutral zone, and from their defensemen’s ability to activate when pucks squirt loose.

The Blackhawks and Sharks were two of the best teams in puck possession in the NHL, and Anaheim was middle-of-the-pack in controlling the puck. While the results are about dead even for the Blackhawks and Sharks versus the Kings in terms of Fenwick percentages when adjusted to even strength and close situations, on a game to game basis, the results in the two playoff series are stochastic. With Anaheim, the Kings controlled the puck, and there is less variability.

The Kings’ ability to overpower and outmaneuver along the boards and execute a fluid transition game is particularly troubling for New York because the Rangers struggled with the Flyers’ size during the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Kings are better than the Flyers in just about every area, and if the Kings choose to dump the puck in and chase, their understanding of the spatial geometry of the rink relative to their players’ strengths and positioning is impeccable. New York will inevitably struggle to cope with the Kings’ size and how fast the Kings get in on the forecheck.

Another fascinating aspect of this match-up is that New York will encounter problems not only when the Kings are charging up the ice, but also when play is at a standstill. The Kings were a sensational faceoff team during the regular season (52.8 percent) and in the postseason that has continued (52.9 percent). New York was at 48.8 percent during the regular season, but has only won 47.5 percent of draws during the playoffs. The Kings’ mark ranks them as an elite faceoff team while the Rangers’ results are below average.

This disparity would be less impactful if the Kings were not so good when they win draws. They are one of the best teams at winning the draw and having one of their wingers pop out for a one-timer, or slip into the slot for a quick wrist shot/snap shot. With some of the shooters they have firing these shots (Carter, Gaborik, Dustin Brown, Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, and Justin Williams), the puck goes in or there is a fat rebound. Also, as ExtraSkater noted in its blog section, the Kings drew the most icings of any team during the regular season. Even if that amounts to only a few more offensive zone faceoffs, the Rangers want to keep the Kings as far away as possible.

How does New York tilt the ice against the Kings?

 One thing the Rangers can exploit is the Kings’ occasional sloppiness with their line changes. The Rangers are very good at pushing the puck and utilizing their passing to achieve good scoring chances when their opponent is making piecemeal changes. This allows for a less grueling zone entry attempt, and the Rangers will need to pounce on every chance they get.

Other than Mats Zuccarello and Kreider, there are questions about who is good enough to open up space for himself. Zuccarello has great balance, and can play through the physical stuff like Kane did, and Kreider has the explosive speed and power to open up room for himself like Saad. But Richards, St. Louis, Derick Brassard, Rick Nash, and Derek Stepan are all forwards who operate excellently in the system, but do not have the puck-handling and skating adroitness to buy themselves times in the neutral and offensive zone against the heavy combat of Los Angeles.

There is a portion of the population that believes Nash has the speed and puck skills to still create room for himself, but that was the old Nash. Present-day Nash’s go-to move for creating room is backing his opponent down with his rear end, juking one side and going the opposite way, and whipping a shot in the direction of the goal. That move is unlikely to be successful against the Kings.

The Rangers have been very good at coming off the boards and moving the puck from outside-to-inside during these playoffs — but will they be able to do that against the Kings? The Rangers are a much smaller, leaner team. If the Kings push them around, and close out on them fast, it seems doubtful New York can wield enough puck creativity to make space except for a select few.

New York reached the Stanley Cup by playing aggressively on the rush, utilizing a high-low forward-defensemen interchange on the cycle, and directing the puck toward the net. Much like the Kings, actually. But if the Rangers think they can play up-tempo against the Kings like they did against their Eastern Conference opponents, the Kings will generate scoring chance after scoring chance off the rush. The Rangers’ transition defense will be a point of emphasis. The Kings are incredibly skilled at recognizing the release valve in their own zone, assessing whether the puck needs to be moved through the outside or inside, building speed through the neutral zone, and striking with ferocity on the offensive zone attack.

In fact, the Rangers would be better served slowing the pace of the game; they want these games to be low-scoring contests. The Rangers’ five-on-five scoring is first in the NHL playoffs because mostly they have won with a couple of goals and stingy defense. Staying away from special teams as much as possible also seems wise given that the Kings are converting on the power play almost twice as much as New York. It will be beneficial if the Rangers keep up their penalty-averse habits. (Their 10.0 PIM/G in the postseason is identical to their penalty average during the regular season.) Henrik Lundqvist has been terrific in net, and his .928 save percentage is far ahead of Kings’ counterpart Jonathan Quick’s .906.

In the Flyers and Canadiens’ series, the Rangers were often winners on a game-to-game basis in Fenwick Close, and they won each series in Fenwick percentage at even strength and close. The Penguins won the puck-possession metrics in that Eastern Conference semifinal series, and the Rangers would be doomed if they fell behind 3-1 again. (The Kings have none of Pittsburgh’s warts: overrated defensive corps, goaltending issues, and top-heavy forward group.)

New York wants to achieve the zone entry, and keep the puck away from the Kings. After all, the Rangers’ best offensive skill is their passing. During the regular season, Zuccarello finished 7th in the NHL in setup passes. Moreover, Brad Richards finished 21st and Derek Stepan was 32nd and Martin St. Louis was 37th. The Rangers have very good speed, and they are great at making the direct and indirect passes, as well as moving the puck from non-scoring area to scoring area.

If the Rangers fall into a breakneck-pace game against the Kings, they will get slaughtered. If New York can hem in the Kings, keep the puck on their own sticks, and funnel as many pucks as possible at the net when there is an opening, then maybe they can pull off a colossal upset. They will need to scale back their aggressiveness and hope that their 8.7 percent shooting percentage holds up. (That is a high enough even-strength shooting mark to have placed them third in the NHL during the regular season.) They also will need the Kings to regress heavily from their 9.2 even-strength shooting percentage.

If the Rangers win, it will be achieved by a Herculean effort from Lundqvist. The Rangers will need to play their best game of the playoffs for all four wins, and a serious injury to Kopitar or Doughty will likely be needed as well. And for Kings goaltender Quick to play even worse than he has in his previous three series. All of this sounds unlikely. The Rangers had a great season and deserve to represent the East in the Stanley Cup finals. But the Kings are the better team.

Prediction:  Kings in six

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