Stanley Cup Final Preview and Predictions (Or Just a Preview)

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If you listen to certain always-reliable sources of journalistic integrity such as Twitter, Barstool Sports and Mike Milbury, you might be led to believe that the 2014 Stanley Cup Final features one of the most lopsided matchups in recent history. In the world of public opinion, the Western Conference was essentially awarded the Cup back even before the playoffs started, and by winning the Conference title on Sunday, the LA Kings all but clinched their second championship in three seasons. The West is too deep, the East is too soft and inexperienced outside of Boston and Pittsburgh are arguments people cite before adding that all the Kings need to do to come out on top is show up for four games.

The peculiar thing is that anyone already writing off the New York Rangers likely has not been a Kings fan for very long, or at least is not an attentive one. Everyone who has followed the Kings, the 2014 variety and beyond, knows that there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to this franchise. A second-period 4-0 lead in a playoff game can vanish (just like an 0-3 series deficit – sorry San Jose) just like an underachieving eighth-seed team can deliver the most dominant postseason performance in Stanley Cup Playoff history. Bottom line is when it comes to Kings’ hockey the only thing that you can predict is its unpredictability.

With this in mind, it is with great hesitation that I see so many pundits and patrons bestow the Kings with such a hefty advantage prior to Game 1 with the Rangers. While Los Angeles does look deeper, more experienced and more battle-tested on paper, it needs to be said that no team wins three consecutive playoff series by accident. Simply by virtue of making it to the Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers should not be underestimated. As I made clear before, the first lesson any Kings fan learns is that expecting anything is the first step toward getting burned, and it is best to just watch and hope for the best.

So unfortunately I do not feel comfortable making a concrete series prediction (my fear of jinxing the team has led me to be choose Kings in seven each round in my playoff pool –  a plan that has worked well so far), I can offer up a few aspects of the Final that will be interesting to watch moving forward.

Showdown of the Stoppers:

To nobody’s surprise, the most intriguing matchup of the Stanley Cup Final is that between the pipes, as a couple of the highest-echelon goaltenders meet at the biggest stage. Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist have cemented themselves as two of the most dominant puck-stoppers in the NHL over the last five years, and the stage is set for them to show who is superior.

But coming into this series, the two do not seem to be on equal footing as far as recent performance goes. Lundqvist is coming off of a series-clinching shutout against Montreal, sits atop playoff goalies with a .928 save percentage, is second with a 2.03 GAA and has given up three or more goals in only four of his 20 postseason starts. Quick on the other hand has taken his lumps in the playoffs, posting a .906 save percentage and a 2.86 GAA, putting him in eighth and ninth respectively. He has given up 13 goals his last three outing, and had surrendered 16 in a three-game stretch to begin the playoffs.

So advantage New York right? Not so fast.

While the numbers are not there, Quick has shown glimpses of his super human side throughout the Kings’ current run – especially when the spotlights are at their brightest. He has been able to flat-out steal a couple of saves in each of his teams’ Game 7 victories; from the glove-hand larceny on Patrick Marleau which helped put the final nail in the Sharks’ coffin to a desperation save on Andrew Shaw to send the Western Conference finale to overtime, Quick has saved his best for when it is needed most.

Perhaps the scariest thing for the Rangers to consider about their opponent is that LA has found a way to defeat San Jose, Anaheim and now the 2013 champions without their goaltender firing on all cylinders. Through three rounds the Kings have surrendered an uncharacteristic number of goals, but have made up for it with timely scoring and an absurd sense of resiliency. If their offense can continue to come through and their defense finds a return to regular season form that won Quick the Jennings Trophy it could mean disaster for New York.

The Burden of Home Ice:

Unfortunately for the Kings, they finished the regular season with more points than their Eastern foes and have therefore earned the right to be the high-seed in the Final. Why is this unfortunate? Los Angeles has proved over the last couple of years to be one of the most effective teams on the road in the post-season. They were able to build a 3-0 series lead when starting away from Staples Center in each round of their 2012 Cup run, and have won three road Game 7s this year.

While LA did win their last series in which they started at home (2013 second round vs. San Jose), this series has a definite if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it vibe to it. The way the Kings have been able to deliver on the road in elimination games this season one would almost think they would choose to defer home ice if this series happens to go the distance. On the other side, New York is more than comfortable playing the underdog after defeating the Penguins and the Canadiens as the lower-seeded team.

In the end it is ridiculous to think that the Kings are anything but thrilled with the opportunity to play at home more often than not in this series, but there is a feel of unfamiliar territory that comes with their high seed.

The Inspirational vs. the Un-Killable

Both of these squads seem to have had some extra mojo working in their favor throughout the playoffs, which have helped propel them to a spot in the NHL’s final two. The Rangers have undoubtedly taken their place as the sentimental favorite in the playoffs, as their players have found a way to rally around Martin St. Louis after the tragic passing of his mother during their series against Pittsburgh. The way St. Louis, always a likable player, was able to take his game to another level and spur his team to a gutsy comeback against the Penguins and a subsequent dispatching of Montreal all while coping with the family tragedy has a storybook feel to it.

Throw in the story of Dominic Moore playing for his late wife and to a lesser extent Lundqvist trying to finally buck his playoff demons and there are plenty of reasons for someone on the fence to root for the Rangers.

But the Kings have also been weaving their own Hollywood-worthy plot in these playoffs. In a postseason that began with a historical feat as LA became the fourth team in NHL history to pull off the #ReverseSweep, the Kings have taken being clutch to a level hardly seen before in professional sports. 7-0 in elimination games, 3-0 in Game 7s, rallying from 3-0 and 3-2 series deficits, climbing out of three separate holes against Chicago, these Kings have redefined the phrase “it’s not over until it’s over”.

While they have not made it easy on themselves, Los Angeles has repeatedly found ways to persevere and get the job done when things looked their bleakest. Dustin Brown said it best when he quipped “We made history by making it very easy for us last time, and making history by making it very difficult this time.”

East Coast vs. West Coast. Quick vs. Lundqvist. Pearson and Toffoli vs. Kreider and Hagelin. Anyway you slice it the 2014 Stanley Cup Final is sure to be one to remember. Since I know better than to guess how it will end up, I will leave it to the two teams to figure it out.

Game 1 tonight. Go Kings Go.

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Reflections of a Happy Fan

Photo Cred.- Getty Images

Photo Cred.- Getty Images

 

Sports are a fascinating, exhilarating, exhausting and often maddening enterprise. If you allow them to, sports can take you on a dizzying thrill ride, with peaks at the highest reaches of ecstasy and valleys that can plunge you into heart-wrenching depression, while reaching every level of anticipation, frustration and anxiety in between.

And all of this can be experienced while being planted squarely on your living room couch.

Sure, there is a lot that can be learned and experienced from personally playing hockey, football, baseball, water polo or what-have-you; but the incentive and commitment that goes with being a participant is much different than that of being a fan. My own 19-year hockey career was at its core driven by a deeply instilled passion for the game, but it was often directed by a host of different personal variables.

One might get into the game as a hobby and to meet friends, stay in the game to parlay their skill set into a college education (or in rare cases a career) and continue playing the game into old age to stay in reasonable shape. But in any case, the players are integrally connected to the game they play whatever its outcome may be.

So why do people sit glued to couches, bar stools and $250 nosebleed seats every-other night from April to the dawning of summer watching a group of 20 and 30-year-olds they have never met playing a game on a sheet of ice that they have no stake in? Why do people put friendships on hiatus for reasons such as “they are a Blackhawks fan,” and making conscious decisions to cancel on a planned get-together because “we just won Game 6 and Game 7 happens to be on the same night as our date”? Continue reading