The Kings’ seven-game victory over Chicago in the Western Conference finals was so thrilling and emotionally draining — and that’s just to watch — it might have set a new standard for playoff excellence. Simply put, it was fabulous hockey.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” said Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin, who was too busy playing in it to fully appreciate its artistic merit.
“It was good hockey to be a part of. It was a lot of fun. Good battles, a really skilled, hard team. To come out on top in that series was special.”
As gripping as it was, as resourceful as the Kings were in winning their third Game 7 on the road in these playoffs and advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three seasons, there could be better hockey to come when the Kings and New York Rangers meet Wednesday to compete for the big silver trophy that provided the ultimate background at the teams’ media day Tuesday at Staples Center.
Can they possibly combine to top the breathtaking rallies and displays of skill that made the West final so memorable?
“Yeah, we can top it,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said, confidently. “We don’t want it to go to seven games like it did. I don’t see why not.”
Why not, indeed?
Like the Kings, the Rangers know something about resilience and perseverance, having turned around their season after a slow start that had them dragging around the .500 mark and in danger of missing the playoffs.
“We pretty much had to win seven games out of every 10-game segment,” said center Brad Richards, who turned down a free-agent offer from the Kings in 2011 to sign a nine-year, $60-million contract with the Rangers.
“It took a lot of work to get in but we were feeling more confident about our game than we were in the first half.”
Like the Kings, who acquired winger Marian Gaborik to be the legitimate scoring threat they lacked, the Rangers added winger Martin St. Louis to boost a pop-gun offense.
St. Louis has become the team’s emotional fulcrum, playing with great grace following the recent unexpected death of his mother. He is tied for the lead in playoff scoring for the Rangers with six goals and 13 points in 20 games.
In a hockey universe turned upside down by the Kings’ winning the Cup in 2012 and becoming a perennial contender and the once high-spending, glamour-oriented Rangers building an identity around speed, gritty shot blocking and defense, anything is possible. And that includes a Stanley Cup Final more dazzling than the splendid West final.
“I think if both teams play like they have been playing in each conference it’s going to be a great series,” said Dan Girardi of the Rangers, one of the NHL’s premier shutdown defensemen.
“It’s a great matchup. Both teams are very deep and it’s going to take the whole roster to get the job done. There can’t be any passengers. I think it’s going to be a very exciting series.”
The Rangers, making their first appearance in the Cup Final since they defeated Vancouver in seven games in 1994, are less concerned with entertainment value than winning.
“With our group it might not always be very pretty,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We talked about it today and over the course of preparing for this series. We don’t need to score pretty goals. We haven’t scored a lot of pretty goals in this playoff run. It’s about getting out of our zone, getting through the neutral zone and getting to our strength.
“For us, everyone is buying in that it doesn’t need to be a pretty play. We’ll try to win games, no matter if they’re pretty or not.”
Kings right wing Justin Williams said the Chicago series was his team’s toughest emotionally and he’s expecting a sterner test starting Wednesday.
“We’re going to have to be better than we were in the Chicago series to beat New York, absolutely,” he said. “We had to be better in the Chicago series than we were in the Anaheim series. And it just goes all the way along. Teams don’t get here by chance. It’s going to be a great series.”
One in which the Kings say they can top their exploits against Chicago.
“You have to, if you want to win,” center Jarret Stoll said. “The stakes get bigger. They’re higher. Play’s got to pick up. It’s going to be a faster pace.
“It was a great series but it’s over now and we’ve moved on. ... We’re in the finals again and we’re starting at home, in front of our fans, and we want to come out and have a great start to this series.”