The National Hockey League (NHL) will have the Stanley Cup Finals it dreamed of when the New York Rangers face the Los Angeles Kings in a bone-jarring drama played out in the two biggest media markets in the United States.
Not since the New York Yankees took on the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 1981 World Series have Tinsel Town and the Big Apple squared off for a major sporting championship and, for the NHL, the showdown between the Kings and Rangers is sure to mean unprecedented exposure.
The best-of-seven series, which begins on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, features two battle-hardened teams in a compelling final rich in Hollywood-type storylines and subplots.
The Rangers, one of the league’s original six franchises, can claim some of the NHL’s most loyal supporters, who have waited two decades for another shot at the cup, while the Kings, champions in 2012, return to the finals for the second time three years.
“The past few years, we’ve tried to earn the respect of the league,” Kings forward Justin Williams said. “LA is not just a place to come and play a hockey game and work on your tan. We want to put LA on the map, and put it significantly on the map with regards to hockey.”
There can be no disputing the Rangers and Kings both earned their spots in the finals.
After falling behind 3-0 to San Jose during their opening-round series, the Kings had looked set to make a quick play-off exit, but they fought their way through to the finals by winning three, best-of-seven series against the Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks that all went the distance.
In elimination games this postseason, the Kings are a perfect 7-0, clinching a berth in the cup finals by finishing off the defending champion Blackhawks 5-4 in a Game 7 overtime thriller.
“You need everybody when you get to Game 7. You’re not into the individual part of it,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said after watching his team become the first to win three Game 7s en route to the finals.
The Rangers’ path to the finals was no less gruelling. New York needed seven games to see off the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins before defeating the Montreal Canadiens in six games to claim the Eastern Conference crown.
To reach the Stanley Cup Finals teams require quality netminding, and the Kings and Rangers feature two of the best in Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist.
Quick is a proven postseason performer, having claimed the Conn Smythe trophy as the Stanley Cup play-offs’ most valuable player in leading the Kings to their first championship two years ago.
At the other end of the rink, the Rangers’ Lundqvist has long been considered one of the tops in the puck-stopping business, taking Vezina Trophy honours as the NHL’s top netminder in 2012 and backstopping Sweden to a gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics and a silver at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
“When it’s only two or three seconds left and you realise you did it, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Lundqvist said after the Rangers cemented their first appearance in the finals since hoisting the cup in 1994. “But what took us there is the entire team really stepped up in key moments throughout the year, but especially the play-offs.”
Having traded away their captain, Ryan Callahan, and with a new coach, Alain Vigneault, the Rangers have emerged as this season’s team of destiny.
At the trade deadline, New York dealt Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Martin St Louis, a former NHL most-valuable player and ageing dynamic offensive force who became the Rangers’ inspirational touchstone.
When St Louis’s mother suddenly passed away during the East finals against Montreal, the Rangers rallied around their grieving teammate, who found solace on the ice and scored the overtime winner in Game 4 against the Canadiens to keep New York’s cup push on track.
The close-knit Rangers can find similar inspiration up and down their bench.
Dominic Moore, who scored the only goal in the 1-0 victory that eliminated Montreal, sat out the 2012/13 season after losing his wife to cancer, while Derek Stepan played the last two games of the series with a broken jaw and has been unable to eat solid food for six weeks.
Like the Rangers, the Kings added a key piece to their postseason puzzle by acquiring Marian Gaborik from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline.
Gaborik, who had just 11 goals during the regular season, leads the play-off scoring with 12. Only Wayne Gretzky, with 15, has scored more goals for the Kings in a single postseason.
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