New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault and Los Angeles Kings bench boss Darryl Sutter are two of the brightest hockey minds in the NHL, but their toughest challenge of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs has yet to unfold.
The Kings and Rangers begin the Cup Final on Wednesday nightÂ at Staples Center, and the coach who wins the matchup battles consistently will put his team in the best position to hoist the greatest trophy in sports.
The contrast in styles between these teams should make for an exciting series. Here are the most important matchups of the Kings-Rangers Cup Final.
Goaltending: Jonathan Quick (LAK) vs. Henrik Lundqvist (NYR)
Quick has struggled throughout the playoffs, posting a mediocre .906 save percentage and a terrible 2.86 goals against average. To his credit, he’s 7-0 in elimination games and has tallied a .936Â save percentage in three Game 7s, all of which were on the road. QuickÂ had a .889 save percentage in the conference finals and allowed 13 goals in the final three games. HeÂ must perform at a much higher level in the Cup Final because his offense will have more troubleÂ scoring against Lundqvist than it did againstÂ Corey Crawford in the West finals.
The Rangers’ netminder has performed at a high level on a consistent basis with two goals or fewer allowed in 10 ofÂ his last 13 games. Lundqvist leads all goalies in the playoffs with a .928 save percentage and is 4-0 in elimination games.
One difference between Lundqvist and Quick is Cup Final experience. Lundqvist has never played beyond the conference finals, and his legacy is on the line in this series. Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy during the Kings’ championship run in 2012 and knows what kind of pressure and expectations goaltenders face at this stage of the playoffs.
First-Line Centers: Anze Kopitar (LAK) vs. Derek Stepan (NYR)
Kopitar is an elite defensive forward and one of the three finalists for the Selke Trophy. He’s played the majority of his ice time in the playoffs against the opponent’s top center, which includes assignments againstÂ Joe Thornton (Sharks), Ryan Getzlaf (Ducks) and Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks). Kopitar’s positioning, physical play and ability to steal the puck with good stickwork make him a nightmare to play against. He’s a smart player and isn’t afraid to block shots or battle for puck possession in the dirty areas. The veteran center also plays an important role on the Kings’ penalty kill, which will be an important factor in this series because the Rangers are 5-2 in the playoffs when they score a power-play goal.
Kopitar will be matched up against Stepan, who returned to the Rangers lineup in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals after suffering a broken jaw in Game 3. Stepan tallied seven points (three goals, four assists) in five games against Montreal, but facing Kopitar will be his toughest challenge of the postseason. If Stepan is able to create scoring chances for linemates Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash, the Rangers’ chances of winning this series will increase significantly. Kopitar’s job is to prevent that by taking away Stepan’s time and space with the puck in the attacking zone.
No. 1 Defensemen: Drew Doughty (LAK) vs. Ryan McDonagh (NYR)
Doughty is a leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidate as a shutdown defenseman and a consistent scorer (leads all D-men in playoff scoring with 16 points). He plays almost six minutes of special teams each night and plays a major role in the Kings’ breakouts as a puck-moving defenseman. Whether it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs or the Olympics, Doughty shines when the pressure mounts.
Just like Doughty, McDonagh is a two-day D-man asked to contribute at both ends of the ice. He led the Rangers with eightÂ assists in the conference finals and has tallied 13 points in his last 10 games. As a premier shot blocker, the 24-year-old is a key part of New York’s penalty kill, which had a 91 percent success rate against the Canadiens. McDonagh’s defensive performance will be a huge factor in New York’s chances of winning this series because he’s going to match up against Kopitar (top scorer in playoffs) and Marian Gaborik (leading goal scorer in playoffs).
Advanced Stats via Extra Skater