LOS ANGELES – There was some concern before the Stanley Cup final that this series couldn’t possibly provide the same drama and elevated level of play that was on display in the Western Conference final. Those fears were warranted, you know, with the LA-Chicago series being one of the best ever and all.
The hand wringing about the drama part turned out to be unfounded. The level of play? Not so much. The most satisfying thing for the Los Angeles Kings probably isn’t that they won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, but that they won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final playing almost as badly as they did when they lost 7-2 to the San Jose Sharks back in Game 2 of the first round.
These Kings have so much more to give and they still managed to strike first in the final. That is not good news for the plucky New York Rangers. This was the game where they had an opportunity to make an emphatic statement and take advantage of a Kings team that had been through three draining Game 7s. And they didn’t do it. If the Rangers can’t take advantage of everything the Kings have been through to get here their chances of winning this series decrease exponentially.
For two periods, the Rangers looked as though they belonged here. They were giving the Kings all kinds of fits with their speed and were forcing the usually sound Kings into making plays with the puck that were baffling in their badness. One of hockey’s catch phrases these days is “puck management.” Well, in the first 40 minutes of the game, the Kings managed the puck the way Joseph Hazelwood managed the Exxon Valdez.
“It felt like the trainers didn’t put skates in our stalls, they put gumboots,” said Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell. “We were skating in mud out there. When you’re skating in mud like that, sometimes your mind wanders and you’re not playing your system the way you should. And pretty much everyone saw that. We have to be a lot better than that and we know we can be.”
The Kings, though, have made a habit of kicking off those gumboots – a term your trusty correspondent had never heard before Wednesday night. The Kings were down two goals to the Blackhawks three times in the conference final and came back to win two of those games. Prior to the final, Jarret Stoll talked about how good the Kings are at breaking their opponents. And they did that from the second period forward. Suddenly, the Rangers looked as though they were playing in galoshes and all those chances they frittered in the first two periods came back to haunt them.
“I’m not quite sure what happen there in the third,” mused Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “I’m not sure if it was them being good or us stopping moving the puck and skating and going north-south.”
Well, that’s not entirely true. The Rangers definitely went south, with just three shots in the third period and none for almost the first eight minutes. But the Rangers have been written off too many times in these playoffs – cue the hateful comments – to expect them not to rebound from what has to be a completely demoralizing defeat. Carl Hagelin, who was the best Ranger skater by a significant margin, scored on a shorthanded breakaway and was stopped late in the game on another and if Jonathan Quick doesn’t stand his ground, the game goes the other way.
But instead, the Kings showed the heartbeat of a champion. Again. And of course it was only fitting that Justin Williams would score the overtime winner. But you get the feeling it’s a little early in the series for his heroics, no?
“I’ve said this many times, Justin is the most underrated player on our team by a mile,” said defenseman Drew Doughty, who had his own moments vacillating between bumbling and brilliant. “He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. There are two guys on this team that I want to give the puck to, and that’s him and Kopy (Anze Kopitar). When they have the puck, plays happen.”
Nobody, but nobody, gets through the playoffs the way the Kings have this spring without being opportunistic and damn lucky. They were both in Game 1. The Rangers biggest fear now is that their opponents can’t be much worse.
THN’s Three Stars
1. Justin Williams, Los Angeles: Assisted on the tying goal and buried the overtime winner on one of the best goalies in the world on a perfect shot.
2. Carl Hagelin, New York: The Kings were stunned by the Rangers team speed and Hagelin was the quickest of them. His ability to separate with the puck on his stick is breathtaking.
3. Kyle Clifford, Los Angeles: If he doesn’t get the Kings on the board with an enormous first period goal, there’s a chance the Kings fade into oblivion in Game 1.