LOS ANGELES — After eight months, the National Hockey League has finally reached the peak of its crescendo, with the New York Rangers here on the left coast to face-off against the Los Angeles Kings in 2014’s quest for hockey’s version of the Holy Grail, the Stanley Cup.
Players, head coaches and general managers of both teams met the media on June 3 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the players spent a lot of time analyzing their opponent.
“[The Kings are] a big team,” said Rangers forward Brad Richards. “Straightforward, experienced, and they obviously don’t give up. We’ve seen that over the last few years, and especially this year. You know that their will is there. We’re going to have to get to that, and match that. After that, there’s not a lot of surprises. It’s straightforward hockey, and they’re going to come. Besides that, we’ll see where it goes.”
“They’re obviously a very, very good team,” said Rangers forward Chris Kreider. “That’s why they are where they are, at this point in the season. That’s why they’ve had so much success over the past few years.”
“They don’t have many weaknesses,” added Kreider. “They’re a big, strong, skating team. They’ve got a lot of skill and they play hard. They’ve improved over the course of the season.”
Rangers left wing Rick Nash focused on the Kings’ physical play.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” he noted. “They’re a big, heavy team. They’re a team that finishes all their checks.”
“I feel like our last two series were against really skilled teams, and these guys have both,” he added. “They’ve got tons of skill—they’ve got some superstars on their team, and then, all their guys finish their checks, too. They’ve kind of got the full package.”
Rangers left wing Daniel Carcillo, who was traded to the Rangers by the Kings on January 4, 2014, in exchange for a conditional seventh round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, is obviously familiar with his former team.
“They’re very well coached,” he said. “They’re big, physical, they have great goaltending. Their structure—they play a north-south game. We’ve got to be really good, defensively. It’ll be a big test for us. It’ll be a battle of wills.”
“When you’re at this point, we can all play, and you work for your bounces, so we definitely have to work for everything that we want to achieve,” he added. “We have to use our speed.”
Another former Kings player is Rangers center Brian Boyle.
“They’re a good team,” he said. “They’re a fast team, a big team. A pretty well-oiled machine. They defend well, and they have depth. That’s obviously different from five years ago. They were on the rise with younger guys. [Now] you see [Kings center Anze] Kopitar—he’s taken off. He was always a good offensive player, but everything else he does—he just keeps getting better and better.”
One area where the Rangers might have an edge going into this series is in goal, if you look strictly at the numbers. Indeed, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has much better post-season statistics compared to Jonathan Quick of the Kings.
“[Lundqvist] is the backbone of the team, and has been since long before I got here,” said Brad Richards. “That’s why this team is relevant every year, and a big reason why I wanted to sign here. You can’t win without a goalie. It just doesn’t happen. I knew that when I signed here, we’d get opportunities because he can steal a series, games. It’s great to play with him, and he’s fun to watch.”
“He’s been in New York for a long time now, and he’s gone through a lot, been depended on a lot to win games, and [help us] make deep playoff runs,” said Kreider. “Ultimately, he’s never gotten here, and you can definitely see it in his eyes. He’s trying to get ahold of this thing, and make a difference, like he has all year.”
“We see his competitiveness every day,” added Kreider. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple shooting drill, or breakaway elimination drills that we do. He’s trying to stop anything and everything, and that’s what you want in a goalie—someone who’s willing to work so hard to make sure his game is on.”
As Kreider noted, Lundqvist has been waiting a long time for this opportunity.
“I’ve been in New York for nine years, and it’s been a dream to try to win and bring a Cup to New York,” said Lundqvist. “We definitely have the team to do it. Now it comes down to everyone playing their absolute best. That’s going to give us a chance to win.”
“The game is more intense in the playoffs,” added Lundqvist. “You need more guys to step up, and our guys have accepted that challenge. Everyone’s been playing really well, and that’s what you need. You can’t rely on just one or two guys, or one or two lines.”
Lundqvist is recognized as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, some even consider him to be the best. But even with all that going for him, he knows that he faces what might be the greatest challenge of his NHL career.
“[The Kings are] a great team, no question,” he noted. “They’ve been playing really well. They’re a determined team. They’re pretty fast, but I think we’re more focused on ourselves right now—what we need to do to have success. We’re not going to focus too much on them.”
“We had success, especially in the second half of the season and in the playoffs, when we played as a team,” he added. “Four lines helping out in big moments. That’s something we’re going to need in this round as well.”
“They’re good. They play fast, but we definitely feel good about our game, about our team.”
Lundqvist is the Rangers’ best player, and the Kings know it.
“He’s a really good goalie,” said Kopitar. “But our mindset can’t change. We’ve faced some really good goalies, too. It’s the same. It’s boring stuff. You’ve got to go to the net. You’ve got to make it hard on him, try to shoot the puck as much as you can, and get as many goals as you can.”
Sticking to their system and game plan has been part of the Rangers’ recipe for success, and that must continue if they expect to win the series.
“The biggest thing that’s impressed me [about our play] is how we follow our game plan,” said Nash. “Each night, we have a game plan that we set forth that the coaching staff wants. It seems like every time we follow that, it works, and every time we get off track, that’s when we struggle. It’s impressive, the way we play, when we can follow [the game plan].”
Not so coincidentally, much of what Kings players had to say about the Rangers sounded vaguely familiar.
“They’re a fast team,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. “They have a lot of speed. Their defensemen try to jump in a lot to create offense off of turnovers and bad bounces. But we can use that to our advantage, too. If they want to use their speed to get up into the play, if we can create a turnover that way, we should have some room going back at them.”
“A lot of it is going to be about speed,” said Kopitar. “We’re trying not to play that way, but there’s going to be [rush chances]. We’re just going to have to be ready for them.”
Kings defenseman Alec Martinez indicated that the Rangers have all the tools.
“They play a really fast-paced game,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of speed up front. They’ve got a really good, solid defensive corps, and obviously, a really good goaltender in Lundqvist.”
“They’ve got a lot of big wingers with a lot of speed, but at the end of the day, they’ve got twelve forwards who can all put the puck in the net,” he added. “They’re a really good hockey club, from top to bottom, and there’s a reason why they’re here.”
“We’re just going to have to play Kings hockey. We’re going to have to focus on getting a lot of shots on net, trying to get as many shots on Lundqvist as we can. I think it’s important not to over-think what you do. You’ve just got to keep playing your game, doing what got you here. Hopefully, that turns out well for us.”
Kings center Mike Richards noted the similarities between the two teams.
“They are an all-around team,” he said. “They’re built much like we are. They have four good lines, seven good defensemen, and one of the best goaltenders in the world, so, on paper, I think we have a lot of similarities.”
“Every team’s game, and the Rangers have proved, throughout these playoffs, as we have, that they’re tough to put down,” said Kings right wing Justin Williams. “Teams don’t make it here by chance. It’s a tough grind. The Rangers have proven that they’re battle-tested, and their will to win is going to be big.”
“I don’t think there’s any secret behind any championship-caliber team,” added Williams. “They all seem to be playing well at the right time. They’re relatively healthy, they’ve got stud goaltenders, they’ve got big defensemen who can eat up minutes, strong, powerful forwards. There’s common themes among every championship team, and the Rangers have all those.”
Speaking of stud goaltenders, even though Quick’s 2014 post-season numbers pale in comparison to his 2012 playoff statistics, the fact that he has faced three of the best offensive teams in the league in the 2014 playoffs likely had a lot to do with that.
He also did not get a lot of help from his defense, at times.
“There were times, throughout the playoffs, where we haven’t really played our best game, and I think we’ve left him [hung] out to dry a few times,” said Martinez. “We weren’t sharp, we weren’t making quick decisions in our own end, we weren’t quick to contact, [and] we weren’t eliminating time and space. But Quick has been awesome for us, all year, and in the playoffs. I’m really happy he’s on my team.”
“Quickie’s great,” said Kings defenseman Matt Greene. “He’s an awesome goaltender. I don’t know what his numbers are, I just know from playing in front of him that he gives the guys in front of him a lot of confidence when we have him back there.”
“He’s the real deal,” added Greene. “He’s proven that before. I don’t think he needs to defend himself, nor do we need to. We know what we have in our net.”
The Rangers are expecting the best from Quick.
“He’s a great goalie,” said Nash. “He was tough to beat at the Olympics, and you watch him all season, and during the playoffs—he’s won a Stanley Cup. He knows what it takes. We’re really going to have to outwork him if we want to have a chance to beat him.”
“He’s winning Game 7’s,” added Nash. “When they count, he’s bringing his best. He’s had success at all levels. He steps up for big games. I don’t think his numbers really matter.”
Lundqvist spoke of the differences between himself and Quick.
“He’s one of the best in the league, but we’re kind of opposites,” Lundqvist noted. “He’s extremely aggressive. He’s like a gymnast out there. He’s all over the place, but he’s so quick, he’s so powerful.”
“I sit back,” Lundqvist added. “I try to stay deep in my net and be more in position. But in the end, it’s more about stopping the puck, and he does it really well.”
“It’s going to be a fun challenge for me. Every team has a great goalie [in the playoffs]. We have to make it tough for him to see the puck, and be hard in front of the net to try to get to rebounds, and hopefully, score some goals.”
Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr went into more detail about the challenge the Kings face from the Rangers.
“They’re a team that generates a lot of speed from both of their wings,” he observed. “Teams that we’ve played in previous rounds leaned heavily on their centers, where the Rangers are more about both the left wing and right wing. They’ve got size, speed and smaller guys with skill. They’ve got a good mix that way. That’ll be a big challenge for us, as defensemen.”
“Their defensive corps is really quite mobile—[Ryan] McDonagh is right up there with that. He gets very involved. The goaltender—Lundqvist has been at the top of his game during the playoffs, especially recently.”
“It’s a well-rounded team, one that we’re going to have make sure that we’re playing our best hockey in order to beat them.”
As usual, the Kings are focused on their own game heading into tonight’s Game 1.
“I don’t think our game plan is going to change a whole lot since the last three series, really,” said Kopitar. “We’re going to have to worry about ourselves, how we play, and go about our business.”
“They have a world-class goaltender, and their defensive corps is very good,” added Kopitar. “They have a lot of depth in their lineup, so it’s going to be challenging, but I think we’re going to be ready for it.”
“We haven’t played them in a long time, so you just have to worry about yourself,” said Williams. “Get yourself ready. Get yourself motivated. Get yourself ready to beat the guy who you’re lined up against. That’ll be the key for us getting ourselves into the game. We’ll figure out the other stuff later.”
Even if one gives the Rangers the edge in goal—that might not actually be the case—the Kings are much stronger through the middle of the ice. The Rangers have the edge in terms of the speed of their wingers, but overall, the Kings hold an advantage at the forward position, and on the blue line. Add to that their league-leading ability to put the puck in the net in these playoffs, along with their physical advantage, the Kings should win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Championship in six games.
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