The Conference Finals, both in the East but especially in the West, were so beyond this world that NBC Sports had to turn to Gods of Rock & Roll to truly encapsulate the epic nature of these series. Not only did they turn to Queen and David Bowie to convey the proper timbre for these games, but they leveled up the epic-ness by using the acapella version of this song:
That’s about how every fan felt watching the West’s monstrous battle for the right to face the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals. As we prepare to sit in our living rooms, at our bars, or with our mobile devices, let us recount the legendary tale of how we arrived at this point. And just as a TV network turned to Rock Gods to convey the true joy and struggle of the Cup, we must turn to the influence of the Hockey Gods in what begins tonight.
Let’s start with…
Those We Left Behind
the Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens missed the Stanley Cup Finals because the Hockey Gods only have so much puck luck they can dole out before the karmic balance swings the other way.
This is not to say the Canadiens aren’t a good team. They are. But they are also probably the third-strongest team that the New York Rangers had to beat on their way to the Finals… and New York only faced three teams. The Rangers survived a boxing match against the Flyers, arguably the hottest team in the East going into the playoffs (arguably), then came back against a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Yes, the Penguins are little more than the warm-up boss fight these last few playoff years, but they do have some of the best players in the game.)
The Canadiens, though, did have to battle through the two teams with the best goaltending in the East. Well, the Lightning did have top-tier goaltending until Ben Bishop was injured, allowing Montreal to make short work of them. Boston, on the other hand, didn’t just have one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, they had perhaps the best team. The only squad in the East which seemed to give Boston fits was — naturally — the Canadiens. Even then, the amount of Bruins’ shots that hit the crossbar gave you the feeling the Hockey Gods were, at that moment, against the Bruins.
But my, the Hockey Gods are fickle.
First game into the conference finals, Chris Kreider barrelled into Montreal’s goalie, Carey Price, who had helped drag the Canadiens past the Bruins. The afterglow of defeating the Bruins faded, the fatigue appeared to set in, and at least one Canadien stopped playing hockey to start his acting career. After figuring out the Boston system and Tuuka Rask, the Canadiens ran headfirst into the brick wall of the Rangers’ system and Henrik Lundqvist. All the puck luck that had been the wind beneath Montreal’s wings disappeared, and not even Bette Midler could get them past the New York Rangers.
the Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks missed the Stanley Cup Finals because their series was a coin flip. They and the Kings were so evenly matched, it seemed like there was no other possible ending than the random hand of fate pushing in an ugly goal during Game 7 overtime.
This is not to say Coach Q couldn’t have done things differently. Depth wins playoff series; depth especially wins playoff series that feature multiple OTs. The Blackhawks’ coach was operating on borrowed time in this regard: he effectively gave up three roster spots because Kris Versteeg, Bryan Bollig, and Michal Handzus routinely skated less than 10:00 a game, sometimes less than 5:00, and often deserved less than that. Someone on Twitter dubbed them the “Human Centipede Line.” When Coach Q did put these three on the ice, the results were often painful or comical (Handzus’s game-winner in Game 5 notwithstanding).
What frustrated many ‘Hawks fans and bloggers is that the coach didn’t need to waste these spots. Peter Regin acquitted himself well when given starts in place of a suspended Bollig. And Jeremy Morin has shown himself a potential Saad or Ben Smith-caliber player. Morin would’ve also been an utterly fresh set of legs on the ice (if an inexperienced set), but we’ll never know what effect he might’ve had, since he was always a healthy scratch.
Sure, every team has players that get squeezed out of ice time for a variety of reasons (Kyle Clifford sat on the Kings’ bench for over 95% of Game 7). But in such a close series, the Kings’ coach wasn’t carrying around a trio of albatross on his bench. It’s telling that when the Hockey Gods flipped the coin in L.A.’s favor, it was Handzus who lost the faceoff, Versteeg who took a hit, and the Kings who scored the winning goal.
Those Who Fight On
the New York Rangers
It’s difficult to say exactly why or how the Rangers made the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 20 years. The possibilities are multitude: Montreal knocking out Boston sure helped. Kreider knocking out Carey Price helped, though rookie replacement Dustin Tokarski filled in admirably. Having a new coach who’s been here before may have helped; finally getting a chance to learn and succeed under his new system definitely helped. Having a cause to rally around, and an anguishing-but-motivated teammate to support, that probably helped. Being able to buy your spend your way past mistakes always helps.
I guess what I’m saying is that the reasons are like the makeup of the New York Rangers’ roster itself: a Frankenstein’s monster of pieces and possiblities glommed into a shape of a Stanley Cup team. We didn’t expect to find it here, but it keeps lurching forward.
The difficulty for the Rangers, for so long, is that it’s always seemed like the kind of really talented but disjointed team that’s better on paper than on the ice. This year was no different: Lundqvist was mediocre, perhaps because of new goalie equipment, or age, or a defense that forgot how to defend in front of him. They traded captains with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Rick Nash was still the least-interesting and highest-paid former Columbus Blue Jacket on the team. The new coach was a guy run out of Vancouver after years of almost-but-never-quite hoisting a Stanley Cup. They don’t even have a team captain, any more.
But, like a conglomerate rock worn smooth by time and pressure, the Rangers rounded into something that resembled a tough playoff team. Lundqvist became that veteran stone wall again. Ryan McDonagh and the defense stifled the hottest forwards in the East. Lesser-known names like Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard and Carl Hagelin remained dangerous, deflecting pressure from the big-name forwards. That, in turn, gave Nash and St. Louis and Richards room to breath (and sometimes even score). Suddenly, Coach Vigneault’s system looked pretty darn good.
Unfortunately for Vigneault, he’ll likely have another front-row seat to watch his team finish as the Stanley Cup runners-up. That’s because… well, have you seen the Los Angeles Kings?
the Los Angeles Kings
The Kings made the Stanley Cup Finals because their series was a coin flip, and the flip ended in their favor.
Ever since Los Angeles started to gel as a team at the end of the 2011-12 NHL season, they’ve made it to the Conference Finals every year. The season is merely a warm-up for this team; the playoffs are where they crush their enemies, see teams driven before them, and hear the lamentations of opposing fans. The Kings make it to some form of Finals every year because they’re a deep, well-coached team that is built for the playoffs.
Dean Lombardi is cementing his reputation as a GM who can find just the right pieces for his team. To the consternation of other GMs, they also are usually the pieces that seemed tarnished, battered, and tossed away by other teams. Marian Gaborik is the latest example. He ran away from the Rangers to the Blue Jackets last year. But he didn’t fit in Columbus, either, and was shipped to L.A. Now he’s one of the most dangerous forwards in the playoffs, on a team that has a lot of forwards who are dangerous in the playoffs.
How dangerous is dangerous? Recall that the Kings were one game away from being swept by the San Jose Sharks… and then won the next four games. The Kings were up against the Anaheim Ducks & the final season of living legend Teemu Selanne… and spit upon the Hockey Gods by winning in seven games. The Kings fell behind in almost every game against the Blackhawks… and yet still won the series.
The horrible truth is that the Los Angeles Kings are terrifying, and that we should all perhaps fall to our knees, letting out moans and rubbing our forearms absently.
Those To Whom We Appeal
Common hockey wisdom says that the Rangers have no chance, that if they’re even able to force a Game 6, it was a good showing and they deserve a pat on the back.
Anyone with eyes and a rudimentary understaning of hockey would find it hard to fault that line of thought. To re-use faint praise, the Rangers may be the fourth-strongest of the four teams LA has faced in the playoffs. As a hockey fan, though, I want the Rangers to defy expectations. Not that I want them to win — egads, no — but I do want them to make this a Stanley Cup Final for the ages. The Western Conferance Finals were utterly packed with hockey worthy of thesaurus-level adverbs & adjectives, and I want this series to match that impossible threshold. I want it to match this level of epic-ness:
Which is why I’m willing to make a deal with the Hockey Gods: You give us a memorable Stanley Cup Final, and I’ll curb my lifetime of hatred against the Dallas Stars. A bit. Maybe.