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Sports

Lots of hockey. Lots of golf. Other sports too. 

Stanley Cup Final, Game Over: A Gang of Kings is Better than One

Minivan Dad

Well, I was close. College kid predicted Kings in 5. I thought the Kings would sweep, but they might end up playing 7 games worth of hockey. After tonight's double-overtime win clinched the Stanley Cup for the Kings, it was almost 19 periods worth. 

It was fitting that the Kings would win on an overtime goal by Alec Martinez, who had also scored the game 7 overtime winner against Chicago in the Western Conference Final. The sight of the Kings celebrating as a unit with Henrik Lundqvist face down on the ice, inconsolable, was an inescapable symbol of what this series was about. Lundqvist made 48 saves tonight. Wave after wave, the Kings fired pucks at the Rangers goalie. From everywhere. As impressive as Lundqvist's statistics were for this game, what was most impressive was his control of the puck. It seemed as though every shot came with traffic in front of him, or waiting just to the side, so he couldn't give up any rebounds. To list his saves would be futile. He was under attack on odd-man rushes, set point shots, deflections, and open shots from the slot. 

The first goal of the game was the second important goal of this series that probably shouldn't have been allowed. After a diagonal dump-in from the right point by Justin Wiliiams, the Kings cycled the puck through Jarrett Stoll and Dwight King, who threw the puck on net from the left slot. Lundqvist made the initial save with traffic in front of him, then a rebound save, then another rebound save, until the puck escaped into the slot and a closing Williams slid it along the ice through Lundqvist's legs. On the replay, it was clear that Jarrett Stoll had pitchforked his stick between the goalie's legs, pushing him backward toward the goal line, and lifting his leg pads off the ice. This created the space for Williams to slide the puck under Lundqvist.  

---The NHL badly needs replay review to be able to call these plays correctly. You could make a case, an incorrect one but at least a case, that Dwight King's game 2 goal was legal. Even though it wasn't. This goal though? Not a chance. Stoll can't realistically claim that he was trying to play a loose puck, because it was behind him. Even if he says he thought he saw it, it was behind him. Could Williams have scored anyway? Maybe. Either way, it doesn't matter. The goal should have been disallowed. (To make it worse, Benoit Pouliot was called for, yes, goalie interference later in the game when Quick came out of his crease, directly into the path of Pouliot, whose path was never going to take him into the crease, and who was looking out to the blue line. The contrast between the two plays for the Kings that were deemed legal, and this one deemed illegal, will not sit well with Rangers fans. And they shouldn't. Goalies should be protected at all costs within the crease. If they choose to seek an advantage outside of the crease, then incidental contact is part of the game. Outside the crease, they should only be protected from deliberate contact. Too hard to determine? Use replay. If players are worried they might be deemed deliberate, then they'll try to avoid the goalies. Pouliot took a path outside the crease. Quick wasn't there when he chose his path. Quick chose to enter his path and take the contact. Acting job aside, he had to have anticipated exactly what would happen, and he was rewarded for it with a power play for his team.)---

The Rangers would tie it up on a 2nd period power play, on a cross ice pass from Ryan McDonagh from the low right circle across the front of the crease to a waiting Chris Kreider, who finished into the open net past Jonathan Quick's sprawling right arm and stick. Within minutes, the Kings were awarded a power play on a phantom hooking call on the Rangers John Moore, who appeared to do absolutely nothing other than trip over his teammate's stick. It worked out for the Rangers though, as Carl Hagelin bolted after a clear in the right neutral zone, and passed the puck over to Brian Boyle in the middle of the ice. The enormous Boyle drove through center ice, then pulled the puck wide left to his forehand, protecting the puck from Drew Doughty's challenge with his lengthy reach. He hesitated slightly until Quick dropped into a butterfly, then buried a high forehand wrist shot over Quick's glove inside the far right post for the short-handed goal.

The Rangers led 2-1, but Boyle's goal marked the beginning of a 2nd and 3rd period onslaught by the Kings. For long segments, the Rangers couldn't clear their own zone. When they did, they immediately gave the puck away before gaining the Kings' blue line. They had difficulty gaining the red line to be able to dump the puck in and change lines. Midway through the 3rd period, the Kings had outshot the Rangers 10-1. Quick only had to make one significant save in the 3rd period, on a turnaround shot from the slot by Brian Boyle with Matt Greene draped all over him. 

The 3rd period tying goal for the Kings came on a power play after a very questionable tripping penalty on Mats Zuccarello. Kings D-man Jake Muzzin, playing a puck at the left point, appeared to extend his right leg into the oncoming Zuccarello, then fall forward. There would be no short-handed goal this time. The Kings quickly took advantage, as Doughty took a shot from the right point with Gaborik in front. Lundqvist was able to block Gaborik's initial downward tip, but the leading goal-scorer in the Playoffs was able to jam the loose puck in along the ice. 

The Rangers seemed to find their legs in overtime, and the action raged back and forth. Both goalies were solid in the first overtime, and both teams managed to flatten cross bars and posts at both ends of the ice. A Slava Voynov penalty gave the Rangers an early power play, and they almost capitalized. Ryan McDonagh beat Quick under the glove arm, only to have the puck hit squarely on the inside of the right post and bounce across behind Quick. Brad Richards held on a little long from the left circle a few seconds later, and Quick stopped a chance from Martin St Louis from the slot. The Rangers were outshot, but only 13-10.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, game 5 did have one specific Jonathan Quick challenge moment. Once again it belonged to game 2's owner Chris Kreider, who couldn't beat Quick off the right shoulder on a breakaway with 30 seconds left in the first overtime period. Kreider definitely needs to go to Breakaway Camp over the summer.

In the second overtime, a careless penalty on the Kings Kyle Clifford at the 4-minute mark gave the Rangers a power play, but they couldn't take advantage. Quick made a nice reactive save on a deflection by Zuccarello in front, but the save of the night was by Slava Voynov. Positioned to Quick's left along the low right faceoff circle, a loose puck found it's way onto Rick Nash's stick. Voynov desperately reached across with his stick, and deflected Nash's slot over the wide open net. Nash is snakebitten, and this was the sort of cruel play that happens to a guy who has lost his mojo.

A few minutes later, Martinez scored a Cup-winning goal that was a microcosm of this series. The Kings generated an odd-man rush off a neutral zone turnover, Tyler Toffoli kept the puck wide on the right while Martinez drove the net on the back side, and a third King drove the middle lane, occupying defenseman Kevin Klein. Toffoli's shot, instead of coming through clean to Lundqvist, was deflected by the stick of defenseman John Moore downward and to Lundqvist's right, just enough to force the puck off of the King's right pad. The rebound bounced right onto Martinez's stick, who buried the chance.

The party was on, and I just had to watch. These Stanley Cup presentations, Gary Bettman aside, are just so cool. Even if you hate the team that wins. This is when you see these guys as what they really are, which is mostly really young. They have wives, kids, friends, girlfriend(s?), agents, parents. No matter how many times they have won, when they pile on each other around the Cup for a traditional, but always impromptu, championship picture, it's just like when they were 8 years old and won the President's Day 4-team tournament at the local rink with their Dad as their coach. The spontaneity and small moments of the Stanley Cup celebration is what separates it from every other championship.

The unquestioned star of the show was Darryl Sutter's youngest son Chris, who has Down's Syndrome, and is clearly a team and crowd favorite. I admit that I did not know anything about Chris before I saw him holding the Cup. Sutter's gentle, lingering embrace for his son off to the side of the celebration, caught by one of the higher cameras, was the kind of moment these celebrations are about. So too was an interview by Jeremy Roenick with Anze Kopitar. Goalless in the Final, Kopitar was still a dominant player, and he is easily in the discussion for the top 3-5 players in the league. He stood with his left arm draped around Chris, and affectionately introduced him to the television audience. There was nothing staged or showy about it, and it's an example of the kind of relationship that is repeated in countless hockey locker rooms everywhere at all levels of play. It's yet another hockey thing. I'm sure Coach Sutter couldn't be more proud of both of them. 

In the end, the Kings deserved to win. They were better than the Rangers, and their road to the Final was more difficult. The Western Conference of the NHL was widely regarded as the dominant conference by far this season. Besides the Kings, there were 4 other teams that were considered to be legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup. The Chicago Blackhawks beat the St Louis Blues in the first round. The Kings defeated the other two, the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks, and then the defending Champion Blackhawks themselves to reach the Final, all in seven-game series.

A lot of experts believe that any of these teams would have beaten the Rangers. I think Henrik Lundqvist would beg to differ. There are hockey fans, not of the Rangers, who believe that Lundqvist may be the King during the regular season, but isn't a true Stanley Cup Playoff goaltender. They might point to the Rangers losing this series in 5 games as proof. Should you know any of them, do not listen to anything they say about hockey, ever again. This series was about Lundqvist giving the Rangers a chance to win. Which he did. Three overtime losses in Los Angeles, two in double overtime. A one-goal win in New York. One 3-0 loss in Game 3 in which the Rangers deflected the first two past their own netminder, and Jonathan Quick played his best game.

Lundqvist gave up 14 goals in 5 games, but finished the series with a .923 save percentage. The volume, and quality, of the chances he faced were overwhelming. Two of the goals he gave up, game 3's vital 3rd Kings goal, and game 5's first goal, should have been disallowed for goalie interference. At least four others were either the direct or indirect result of deflections off his own players. For long stretches of time, he was under siege, as if he was playing behind a US youth team playing in Canada for the first time. The King was remarkable, but it wasn't enough. 

This is not to say that Jonathan Quick is a slouch. Far from it. If I had one game coaching any random hockey team for a bag of golden pucks, I'd probably put Lundqvist in goal. If I had to pick a goalie to defend one shift of hockey with the Stanley Cup on the line, I'd choose Quick. The Kings needed Quick to slam the door on the Rangers in game 3, and he did. They needed him to keep the Rangers from winning in overtime, and he did. Three times. It's just what he does. He can be a bit of an adventure, but when he is in sync with his defense, it can seem impossible to score. The fact is, the Rangers had a large number of rebound opportunities in this game. Quick seemed to leave pucks on the doorstep at least 4 or 5 times. The problem was, unlike the Kings on their first goal, there were no Rangers there to knock in the loose pucks.

Ultimately, that's the difference between these Kings and everyone else. They outnumber opponents on the puck, on the boards, and, most importantly, in front of the nets on offense and defense. They rarely give up unchallenged breakaways, or odd-man rushes, or uncontested shots from high-percentage scoring zones. When they do, they don't make desperation plays that result in random deflections or power plays, they just let Quick do his thing, and protect his flanks.

Game 5 was the Kings in microcosm. On the Kings first goal, both Stoll and King had whacks at Lundqvist before Williams came in as the trailer and scored. There was one Rangers defender in the scrum, and a second skating in from the edge who failed to recognize that Williams, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, was moving in to a loose puck in the slot with the goaltender under siege. They effectively outnumbered the Rangers 3-to-1 in front of Lundqvist. Just minutes later, Quick left a rebound to his left off a shot from the left point, about 15 feet from the empty net. There were 3 Kings in view, and not a single Ranger. On a Rangers power play. For the Kings, someone would have been there. On the winning goal, a wide right carry and a center drive, in double overtime, created a deflection rebound that was finished by an unaccounted for rushing defenseman. The Kings do not deflect shots on D, they block them. They never leave anyone unaccounted.

The Kings, at times, may seem vulnerable during the regular season. They certainly were vulnerable in the first 3 series of this playoff season, and they easily could have lost any of the 3 overtime games in this Final. But they didn't. And they never believed for a second that they would. They know that even if they are not at their absolute best, they can still do the things they need to do to win. They require their opponents to play their best hockey, all 200 feet, every shift, every night. 

The books will record this as a 4-1 series win for the Los Angeles Kings over the New York Rangers for their 2nd Stanley Cup in 3 years. That's not exactly fair. What really happened is that a great team with a great, perfectly matched goaltender was just enough better than a good team, with an otherworldly goaltender, to win 4 of 5 games. They got some breaks, and some favorable treatment from the officials on two vital goals, but the style of hockey they play means that more often than not, they will. The Kings have absolute faith in their coach, in their goalie, in their system, and, most importantly, in each other. They are big, strong, tough, nasty, talented, determined, persistent, disciplined, and confident. They are experienced, but they are also young, so the rest of the league had better be ready for the same exact challenge next spring. Henrik Lundqvist undoubtedly wants another crack at them. More than likely, if the King can get there, the Kings will be waiting.