Good thing the NHL is still going to play the games. Given what appears to be near unanimity in the hockey world that the winner of the Western Conference final would be de facto Stanley Cup champion, it seems the only reason to play the actual final is to see which city will have the most celebrity sightings.
From coast-to-coast, fans and pundits are so sure Los Angeles will win this series over New York that they’re predicting the Kings to sweep the Rangers in three games. And that’s only if the NHL doesn’t step in after two and apply the mercy rule.
Heck, even at The Hockey News only a lone egghead editor, along with a graphic designer, is picking the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup. The others have all caught L.A. fever, too.
(Alain Vigneault, to his credit, is smartly playing along with this tune.)
This lickspittle love affair with Los Angeles, however, is blinding far too many to this longstanding truism: the team with the best goaltending wins. Right now, that’s New York.
Aside from his faceplant performance in Game 5 against Montreal, Henrik Lundqvist (2.03 GAA, .928 SP) has been the best goalie in the playoffs, far better than Jonathan Quick (2.86 GAA, .906 SP), who’s playing like he’s had one too many pre-game Red Bulls. This is not the Quick of 2012. Los Angeles beat Chicago in spite of Quick, not because of him, and even then only because Corey Crawford was as porous as a napkin under a waterfall.
Thus far, the Kings have had it easy with opposing goaltenders through three rounds, thus overemphasizing what was the worst offense of any team heading into the playoffs. In games against Los Angeles, opposition goalies have had a collective save percentage of .895:
Antti Niemi: .884 SP (6 GP)
Alex Stalock: .929 SP (3 GP)
Frederik Andersen: .957 SP (1 GP)
Jonas Hiller: .888 SP (4 GP)
John Gibson: .919 SP (4 GP)
Corey Crawford: .878 SP (7 GP)
Lundqvist’s save percentage is 33 points better.
The largely mediocre goaltending that the Kings have faced has inflated their offense all the way up to 3.48 goals per game. It was ranked 26th during the regular season at just 2.42. When comparing sample sizes, only small minds would take the smaller one.
Advantage, New York.
But there are other things to think about, too, all of which should make anyone rethink this inevitable Los Angeles landslide.
In the regular season, the Kings finished with one more win (46) and four more points (100) than the Rangers, who actually had three more regulation/overtime victories. L.A. (23-14-4) was slightly better than N.Y. (20-17-4) at home, but the Kings (23-14-4) weren’t as good as the Rangers (25-14-2) on the road.
Home ice advantage? Yeah, not so advantageous for Los Angeles. Since starting the season 2-6-0 away from Madison Square Garden, New York is 29-12-2 on the road. The Blueshirts are quite content to start this series away from MSG.
In possession, the Kings were No. 1 in Fenwick close at 56.7 during the regular season, while the Rangers weren’t far behind in sixth at 53.6. In the playoffs, they’re almost at a dead heat: L.A. is 50.6, N.Y. is 50.5.
Then there’s this hullabaloo over Los Angeles winning seven elimination games, including three Game 7s. New York, meanwhile, has won four win-or-go-home games, two of which were Game 7s. So only a slight edge to L.A. there.
Of course, there’s another way to look at this: being in so many elimination games in one post-season speaks volumes about a team that puts itself in that position that often.
Much has also been made of the quality of competition comparison. Collectively, San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago are better than Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal. But consider this: after starting the season 2-6-0, the Rangers ranked among the best teams in the league the rest of the regular season, right there with the Sharks and Blackhawks, and only three wins behind the Ducks:
Anaheim: 46-17-8, 100 pts.
San Jose: 43-21-8, 94 pts.
Chicago: 40-18-12, 92 pts.
New York: 43-25-6, 92 pts.
If they can take the Kings to Game 7, so can the Rangers.
Then there’s the rest/rust factor. New York will have had a week between games by when Game 1 goes tonight, Los Angeles just two days. That those in the Kings’ corner are saying this is actually advantage L.A. speaks to the blindness of this Los Angeles love-in. After playing more than 100 games since Oct. 1, the Rangers won’t suddenly forget how to play hockey after a week off.
Add all this up and this is a pick ’em series. It’s New York’s speed versus Los Angeles’ size, the Rangers’ No. 2 defense against the Kings’ No. 1 offense, N.Y.’s crafty coach going head-to-head with L.A.’s wily curmudgeon behind the bench.
All things being equal, then, the tiebreaker goes to the team with the better goaltender. In this series, it’s Lundqvist. And that’s why the Rangers will beat the Kings in seven games to win the Stanley Cup.