The blueprint was unfolded and spread across North America in full disclosure last season when the Kings marched to their first Stanley Cup. There were no hidden keys that unlocked the black box, no secret password for the caretaker with the white gloves who guards Lord Stanley’s trophy with his life.
Los Angeles showed how a great team can finish with a low seed and still win 16 playoff games and bring home a title. The key words: great team. They should not be glossed over when examining what they had last season despite finishing eighth in the Western Conference during the regular season.
The Kings had all the makings of a Cup winner going into last season. The question was whether they would come together at the right time or, in their case, ever. They knocked off Vancouver in the first round, lost only two games in the first three rounds and beat New Jersey in six games for the title.
Does that mean any team finishing eighth can win it all? No. You need, at the very least, a very good, well-balanced team with a great goaltender. It takes sound defense, scoring from unlikely places, blocked shots from finesse players and a full effort from everyone.
And that’s what the Rangers have now.
Last year’s Kings and this year’s Rangers are strikingly similar if only because they were confounding during the regular season. New York underachieved, much like Los Angeles did in 2011-12, and finished sixth. The Kings fired their coach during the season last year. At times, you wondered if the Rangers considered doing the same.
Both teams were strong down the middle, had pure scorers, three pairs of very good defensemen and, most importantly, top goaltending. Talent alone isn’t enough. There comes a point in which teams figure out how to win. The Kings did. We’ll learn more about the Rangers in the second round. And then the third.
It wasn’t as if the Rangers dominated in the first round. They faced elimination by the Capitals before buckling down on defense and leaving the rest to Henrik Lundqvist. He became the fourth goalie in history to post shutouts in the sixth and seventh games of a playoff series. The Rangers cruised to a 5-0 win in the finale.
New York will start the second round Thursday at Boston. The Bruins were headed for elimination before landing two left hooks in the final 1:22 and a knockout punch in overtime that left the Maple Leafs, and anyone watching, stunned. It was the last of a record 17 first-round playoff games to reach OT.
Chicago will host Detroit in the second-round opener. The Blackhawks had little trouble with Minnesota in the first round while the seventh-seeded Red Wings needed seven games to beat the Ducks.
Eleven players scored in the first round for the Rangers. Eight had 10 goals or fewer during the regular season. Five had fewer than five goals over the first 48 games. The Blueshirts need more from their stars, namely Brad Richards and Rick Nash, to reach the conference finals for the second straight season. Both were very quiet in the first round and must make a difference against Boston. If they don’t play better, the Rangers are done.
Here’s a closer look at the conference semifinals.
Boston (4) vs. New York Rangers (6)
Bruins update: Patrice Bergeron had the tying and winning goals to finish off the Leafs. Tyler Seguin did not record a point before getting the primary assist on the winner. Milan Lucic had nine points and was plus-9 in seven games after 27 points and plus-8 in 46 games of the regular season. David Krejci had five goals, including a hat trick, and 13 points in the series against the Leafs. Injuries along the blue line are troubling.
Rangers update: Lundqvist stopped 62 shots over his final two games en route to a 1.65 GAA and .947 save percentage in the series. Ryan McDonough and Dan Girardi are among the best shutdown defensemen in the league and were a big reason Alex Ovechkin had one assist to show for the final six games. Nash, scoreless against Washington, has one goal in 11 career playoff games. Richards had one goal and no assists in the seven games. Derick Brassard is a dangerous player when he’s playing with confidence. Mats Zuccarello emerged with Brassard. Defenseman Marc Staal is hoping to play in the series after taking a shot to the face late in the regular season.
Outcome: Boston took too many naps against Toronto to make anyone feel comfortable. I’m sticking with my preseason pick, the Rangers, in six games.
Chicago (1) vs. Detroit (7)
Blackhawks update: Chicago beat Minnesota in five games even though Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, its two top forwards, did not score. Kane was terrific with five assists in five games. The Hawks’ team defense is grossly underrated when everyone is committed. Duncan Keith and Nicklas Hjalmarsson are in top form along the blue line. Cory Crawford had a 1.32 GAA and .950 SP, but he wasn’t tested often enough by the Wild. Let’s not forget Marian Hossa, who had three goals and six points in the five games. Patrick Sharp scored five times. Their depth is ridiculous.
Red Wings update: Leadership and experience, which have been handed down for years in Motown, led the Red Wings over the Ducks. The last thing they needed was a seven-game series to start the playoffs. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg had their legs against Anaheim after showing signs of wear. Dan Cleary has a knack for showing up at this time of year, and he did against the Ducks. Justin Abdelkader scored a huge short-handed goal in Game Seven. He’s an underrated player who sticks to his role. Goalie Jimmy Howard (2.74 GAA, .911 SP) needs to play better if they’re going to advance.
Outcome: The Red Wings played well enough to win the first round, but they’re overmatched in this one. Blackhawks in five.