Later tonight, the Rangers host the Kings at MSG. It’ll be the first of two meetings. The other is next month on March 17 during a three-game Californian Western trip with stops in Anaheim and San Jose.
Two years ago, the Kings defeated the Rangers for the Stanley Cup in as close a five-game series as you’ll ever see. All three games at Staples Center went to sudden death. Each time, the Kings prevailed including the heartbreaking conclusion in double overtime from defenseman Alec Martinez. It was the most frustrating of the three OT losses because the Rangers blew a couple of golden opportunities that included a power play and also a breakaway for Chris Kreider. But the athletic Jonathan Quick stoned him.
Unfortunately, that’s sports. Especially hockey where it’s a game of inches. It’s also a game of luck. In that series, the Kings had it. Particularly in Game 2 when they had a call go their way that allowed them to rally from a two-goal third period deficit and win 5-4 in double overtime. Of course, maybe if the Rangers had actually attacked in the third period and scored goals, the outcome might have been different. Instead, we’re left to wonder what could’ve been.
Two years later, here are the same two teams entering Friday’s match with an identical amount of points (67) putting themselves in good playoff position. While the Kings lead the Pacific Division by six over San Jose and seven over Anaheim, the Rangers still have more work to do trailing the first overall Washington by 17 points. They have reeled off four in a row for their best stretch since before Thanksgiving. By putting together a winning streak, they are in second place and lead the Islanders by three points. Even better, by shutting down Sidney Crosby thanks to Henrik Lundqvist’s 58th career shutout in which he made 34 saves, they kept the Pens at 61 in the second wild card. A position they still own due to two less games played and one more regulation/overtime win than the Devils.
For the Blueshirts, they have been able to accomplish this without Rick Nash or Ryan McDonagh. Nash remains out with a bone bruise and McDonagh will miss a third consecutive game with a concussion. Other key players have stepped up including J.T. Miller, who connected for his ninth goal in the last 10. His 17 goals are third trailing co-leaders Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello by one for the team lead. Miller ranks fourth in club scoring with 30 points. Brassard leads with 40 while Zuccarello has 39 and Nash has 33.
In McDonagh’s absence, Keith Yandle has picked it up both offensively and defensively. Getting more responsibility and ice-time from Alain Vigneault, he has proved his worth. Even with his pending unrestricted free agency this summer, there’s no way the Rangers can trade him. He has points in two of the last three games including the game-tying tally with 12.9 seconds left in an emotional 3-2 shootout win over Philadelphia. Yandle was one of four defensemen the coaching staff used to blanket Crosby, holding the Pens’ superstar without a shot and a minus-three rating. Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein also drew the tough assignment limiting Crosby’s time and space.
The defense also sacrificed for the cause blocking 25 shots including five from unlikely source Dan Boyle, who continues to shift to the left side when aligned with rookie Dylan McIlrath. It’s not just the blue line who are more committed. The forwards are as well with Brassard winning the match-up against Crosby. No small feat.
One of the stories coming out of that win was the play of secondary players. Kevin Hayes has had a big time struggle in his sophomore year. But he scored the winner for his eighth on a Tanner Glass rebound from Yandle. About as unlikely a combo for any goal. Glass’ third point and Hayes’ second goal in 14 games were huge. Just as large was Dominic Moore’s fifth goal of the season which came thanks to a great defensive play from Derek Stepan, causing a two-on-one with Chris Kreider. Moore went top shelf on Marc-Andre Fleury for a huge insurance marker in the third.
Jesper Fast closed the scoring with an empty netter despite taking a Kris Letang cheap shot into the boards. He’s played some of his best hockey fitting in on a second line with Stepan and Kreider. The second-year Swede has four points (1-3-4) over the last five games. His tenacity has helped keep plays alive in the offensive zone. Not the most skilled, Fast brings a solid work ethic which Vigneault prefers.
With the top two lines performing better, it’ll be interesting to see what Vigneault does when Nash is ready. For now, there’s no reason to rush him. Would he consider trying Nash on a third line with Hayes and Lindberg? Viktor Stalberg has done a admirable job on that line. But imagine if he was on the fourth line with Moore and either Glass or penalty kill specialist Daniel Paille.
One thing that must change is the current state of the power play. Even though Hayes scored from Glass and Yandle after it expired, the man-advantage is now a dreadful 2 for its last 50. There really is no rational explanation. It is a Rangers Tradition. Ever since the days of Perry Pearn and Mike Sullivan, power failure has been common. At some point, they need to have success on it.
As far as tonight’s match-up, neither starter is playing. Lundqvist is getting a rare night off with backup Antti Raanta starting.for the first time since allowing four in a 5-2 loss to the Caps on Jan. 17. It’ll be his 10th start. He’s 4-4-1 with a 2.30 goals-against-average and .909 save percentage. For LA, Quick will miss a second straight game due to a lower body injury. Emergency recall Peter Budaj gets the call over Jhonas Enroth. The last time the Rangers saw him, they pelted him for five foals on eight shots after Budaj relieved the injured Carey Price in Game 1 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final. However, his last start against them was with Montreal when he made 27 saves in a 1-0 shutout on Oct. 28, 2013 at MSG.
The Kings boast Norris contender Drew Doughty and Selke competitor Anze Kopitar. They are two of the best players at their position. Each can beat you offensively and defensively. Kopitar is one of the premier two-way centers in the game who also paces LA in scoring with 47 points (13-34-47) and a plus-20 rating. Doughty is having a superb season with 33 points (11-22-33) and a plus-15 rating. Eight of his 11 markers have come on the power play.
Tyler Toffoli has been a breakout star with a team best 23 goals and plus-26. He can play any situation including shorthanded. Something the Rangers better watch out for. Toffoli has eight power play goals and one shorthanded goal. With Justin Williams now playing the same role in Washington he played in Hollywood, the Kings went out and acquired power forward Milan Lucic from Boston. He’s had a solid first year registering 14 goals and 20 assists with 66 penalty minutes while pacing the Kings in game-winners (5). His size and strength has always been a problem for the Rangers. That should be a tough match-up along with Jeff Carter (14-24-38).
Marian Gaborik tormented us in the Stanley Cup Final with some big goals. He returns to the Garden with just 11 goals and 21 points in a disappointing season. However, his eyes will light up under the Broadway lights. In four seasons as a Blueshirt, Gaborik totaled 114 goals including a career high 42 in ’09-10. He was successful eclipsing 40 twice and scoring a big overtime goal against the Caps in the second round of 2012. Even though former coach John Tortorella was responsible for his trade to Columbus, it netted the Rangers Brassard. John Moore was also part of that deal and eventually used as an extra with Anthony Duclair, first and second round picks for Yandle. Derek Dorsett spent a couple of years here and had a nice role on the fourth line during the 2014 postseason. Eventually, Columbus re-routed Gaborik to Los Angeles. The same way they hooked them up with Carter. What a top notch organization that is.
The Kings blue line also boasts Jake Muzzin. A lanky Russian who can play his end well and contribute offensively. He has 31 points (6-25-31) along with 122 hits and 79 blocked shots. If there is a team strength, it’s LA’s size where they love to pound the opposition with physicality. Six different Kings have over 100 hits led by Lucic (179) and royal pain in the ass Dustin Brown (136). After losing badly to the Islanders 5-2 in Brooklyn, they’re going to be mad.
By contrast, the Rangers are more of a skating team that plays finesse utilizing stretch passes and skill to beat opponents. However, Miller is not only a factor offensively but physically as well pacing the club with 131 hits, including seven against the Pens. Four Blueshirts have registered over 100 hits including Kreider (125), Glass (120) and Girardi (108), who would probably like a do over in the Stanley Cup Final against these Kings. It wasn’t memorable for him with a couple of bad giveaways causing goals including a Williams’ OT winner that turned fan bloggers against him. This fan base is fickle. Granted. Danny G isn’t what he once was. But the amount of hate he gets is pathetic. He’s about to play his 700th career game. That should be acknowledged by the same fans who cry constantly over a heart and soul player who has given everything to help the team be successful. That goes ditto for Staal.
Of course, each has bad contracts. That’s no secret. They contain no-movement clauses which will make it hard on new GM Jeff Gorton to move either. For all his stubborness with the vets, Vigneault is right. This team won’t go anywhere without Girardi or Staal. Girardi’s game has come up recently. Staal’s has in spurts. But each is still turnover prone and can be beaten to the outside by speed. Don’t forget how much these two have given. They’re warriors. That should be respected.
As for what to expect tonight, figure the Kings to come out with one intent. To get the puck deep and finish checks testing our D minus McDonagh. It’ll be a good challenge.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Vinny Lecavalier, who LA acquired along with Luke Schenn from Philly in a salary dump. Lecavalier has indicated that he’ll retire after this year rather than finish his contract. Since coming to Tinseltown, he’s been impressive scoring five goals including four on the power play. Playing a secondary role under coach Darryl Sutter, Lecavalier has proven he still has something left. With five goals and three helpers in 14 games and a 94-and-91 faceoff record, he’s been a nice addition. Looking for one more Cup before he rides off into the sunset, the 35-year old ex-Lightning might get his wish.