It's the final opposing blog Q&A of the season! Thanks to Evan (@ev_sporer) of Blueshirt Banter for taking the time to answer some questions for us. Head over to Blueshirt Banter to read their preview of the Cup Finals, wish the locals good luck, and read our answers to their questions!
Q: In each Kings series so far, Anze Kopitar has spent the vast majority of their ice time against the opponent's number one center (Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews). It's a little less clear cut this time, but how do you see a matchup between Kopitar's line and, say, Derek Stepan's line shaking out?
I wrote about it in our series preview, and yes, I think it’s a safe bet both Darryl Sutter and Alain Vigneault will want Kopitar’s line and Stepan’s line going head-to-head. I’ll be the first to sing Kopitar’s praises; he’s one of the best players in the league, and a wizard in all three zones. Stepan is a pretty steady defensive player himself, but he doesn’t stack up to Kopitar, and it’s really not that close.
The one area of the Stepan line the Kings need to worry about is Chris Kreider. Since coming back from a hand injury that kept him out of the first 10 games of the postseason, Kreider has reminded everyone of his game-breaking speed. It’s not anything Kopitar or Dustin Brown or Marian Gaborik can keep up with. How the Kings are able to neutralize Kreider’s speed will go a long way in how they’ll be able to disrupt the Rangers’ top line.
Of course, when Kopitar is on the ice, it will also likely mean that Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are out there. That pair has been on the top of its game of late, McDonagh especially. How the game plays out when it’s Kopitar v. Stepan is going to have a pretty big bearing on how this series goes.
Q: Despite Jonathan Quick's playoff reputation, you'd have to think Henrik Lundqvist gives New York an advantage in net. Thoughts on the goaltending matchup?
To that first question, yes. I’m sure your readers won’t be happy to read this, but I consider Quick wildly overrated. That’s not to diminish any of his accomplishments, but I think those start and end with that 2012 Cup run. While the Kings are certainly the Corsi darlings of the league, the Rangers are good enough in puck possession that I think they’ll get enough opportunities to expose Quick. I can’t say I’ve seen Lundqvist play a better stretch of hockey than he is right now over his career. It’s funny, because a really terrible start to this season in my opinion is what’s contributing to his play right now. He played his second fewest number of games in the regular season all-time (excluding the lockout-shortened season) in large because he wasn’t on the top of his game until sometime in January. It gave him rest necessary to carry him through this deep playoff run. If Quick puts up some of those shaky, four goals against games in this series, it won’t be Corey Crawford opposite him coughing up horrendous rebounds in front, or letting it soft goals from above the dots.
If I’m a Kings fan, Quick is my single-biggest concern entering this series. There’s little doubt in my mind Los Angeles is the better team, but that’s how I felt about Pittsburgh. And then Lundqvist came along, and Marc-Andre Fleury did his postseason disappearing act, and … poof, Eastern Conference champs. Lundqvist has the ability to steal a series, but that hinges on the Rangers giving him enough goals. And Quick is the only answer to that last piece of the puzzle in my estimation.
3) Who is going to be the most important defenseman for the Rangers in this series?
Ryan McDonagh had 10 points in the six games against Montreal, including three multi-point games, and a four point game. He’s probably the Ranger with a best chance at winning the Conn Smythe who’s not named Henrik Lundqvist. So McDonagh is the simple answer, but I’m going to give you another name instead.
Marc Staal was a player who looked like he was destined to be a top NHL defenseman. Then a concussion and a freak eye injury really derailed his development and his career. At times this season, he’s shown flashes of that Marc Staal of old. When he’s on top of his game, he’s physically dominant—a player that can create turnovers in his own ends, before starting the rush the other way. While McDonagh and Girardi will draw the Koptitar matchup, the Jeff Carter line, which has been invaluable to the Kings playoff success, will go up against Staal and Anton Stralman. If Staal is playing to the best of his ability, it really changes the dynamic of the series. Stralman is steady himself, but Staal has another level he can tap into. If that happens, all of a sudden you’re putting a pretty big roadblock in front of the Kopitar and Carter lines.
4) Assuming Daniel Carcillo doesn't get to play, Brian Boyle is the primary ex-King in this series. Update us on him, and tell us why we should worry about him and the rest of the bottom six.
One of the unsung heroes of the Rangers all season was Brian Boyle. He had a 20-goal season a few years ago that really skewed the way most Rangers fans judge him. As far as a fourth line player, he does exactly what you’d want him to do. He can play in any scenario, is incredibly accountable defensively, can win faceoffs; pretty much just a very sound bottom-six player. And in saying that, the Rangers bottom-six is a big reason the team is where it is right now. Just look at the three games the Rangers have won to advance to the next round this postseason: the player to score first in each of those games was Daniel Carcillo (Flyers), Boyle (Penguins), and Dominic Moore (Canadiens), respectively. I will say that the way the trio of Boyle, Moore, and Derek Dorsett were able to dominate against Montreal I expect Los Angeles to play them more evenly.
Now as for the rest of the bottom six, the Kings should certainly be worried about the Derick Brassard line. Flanked by Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, the "third line" has been the Rangers best and most consistent all season. The way they can work the puck along the boards and possess it in the offensive zone is really suffocating, and can take a team off its game. Again, the Kings know a thing or two about puck possession, and I’m interested to see how the Brassard line fares.
5) Finally, it's been 20 years since the Rangers last appeared in a Cup final. What's the mood in New York right now?
Don’t know if you guys are spying on my computer, but I actually wrote something for SB Nation about that today. Essentially, the Rangers are doing their best to get out of sports obscurity in New York. I know the Los Angeles Times wrote something similar about the Kings that I caught reading about the same topic on Puck Daddy. In this sense, New York and Los Angeles are probably very similar: great places to play when you’re winning, and miserable when you’re losing. And as far as hockey is concerned, it’s tough to compete with the likes of the Knicks or Lakers, or Dodgers or Yankees. It’s just a pretty tall task to overtake those juggernauts.
The Rangers have certainly managed to stir up excitement in New York though. You talk about storybook endings, and man, this Rangers team just has that undefinable quality to it. Just the way things have played out this season—a first-year head coach, a horrid start, trading the captain and heart of the team Ryan Callahan … there were plenty of moments of unease. And now looking at this team, rallying around guys like Dominic Moore and Martin St. Louis, and I get fans who don’t root for the Rangers or Kings asking me how they could not root for the Rangers at this point. It’s just that special aura the team has built around itself that’s making this postseason run so exciting. The people of the city know the Rangers are the underdogs going into this series, but that was the case against Pittsburgh, and arguably the case against Montreal. The dynamite is laid, the cord is prepped, and the lighter is sitting right next to it. The city is just waiting for someone to light the cord, and watch this whole thing blow up.