The New York Rangers are in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 22 years, as they get set for Game 1 tonight on the road in the Staples Center at the Los Angeles Kings. Here’s a look at how the Rangers got here, both in the regular season and then in the playoffs.
*New York went 45-31-6 through the season and that was good for fifth in the Eastern Conference. Defense was the key to success, as the Rangers ranked fourth in goals allowed, while being in the middle of the pack offensively, at 15th.
*In both cases, their performance in goals scored and goals allowed, was the reverse of what you would expect based on their shots. New York was the second-best in the NHL at getting shots on goal, while they were middle of the pack at allowing them. What’s more, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist ranked in the middle of regular NHL goalies with his 92% save rate, making this team’s ultimately strong defensive performance a curious statistical anomaly.
*New York swung a big deal at the trading deadline, moving Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for veteran Martin St. Louis, who was the hero of Tampa Bays’ 2004 run to the Stanley Cup. St. Louis’ 69 points in the regular season were the best on the Rangers, though that includes numbers compiled when he was in Tampa.
*The Rangers have quality second and third-level scorers. By that, I refer to their individual rank in the final NHL stats for points, goals, and assists. My crude statistical measurement is to take the top 30 in a category and consider them first-level, since a 30-team league means each of these players would be someone’s go-to guy if talent were equally disperses. By extension, ranks 31-60 would be second-level and 61-90 third level.
It’s far from a perfect system, but it establishes the Rangers have a nice array of depth, with Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan moving the puck and getting assists, while Rick Nash can light the lamp.
*New York got a break in the way the playoffs were structured. The league shifted from a conference-based format to a division-based one, and the result was the Rangers were able to play the Philadelphia Flyers, who had the sixth-best record in the East. New York won that series in seven games and then did the same to the Pittsburgh Penguins, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit.
Another break came when the Montreal Canadiens upset the top-seeded Boston Bruins in seven. The Canadiens were not only significantly less talented, but winning a rivalry series drained their emotions. And then the final break came when Montreal’s exceptional goalie, Carey Price, got hurt in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals. The road certainly opened up for New York.
*That doesn’t take away from just how good Lundqvist has been in this postseason. His 92.8% save rate is the best of any NHL goalie in these playoffs and that includes seven games against Pittsburgh’s dazzling array of offensive weaponry. It also includes Lundqvist’s magnificent 1-0 shutout of Montreal in the clinching Game 6, a clutch performance that had been lacking from his otherwise strong career resume to date.
*Lundqvist has really carried New York in the playoffs. While Los Angeles has gotten here by seeing a variety of players increase their offensive production in the crunch, no one is really standing out for the Rangers. Ryan McDonagh was the team’s best player outside of the goalie in the Montreal series. But the 13 points of St. Louis and Stepan lead New York in the playoffs, while the Kings have six players at or above that number.
What it really comes down to is that Henrik Lundqvist is the Stanley Cup Finals version of what LeBron James is in the NBA Finals. In each case you have a player capable of carrying his team to a series win, but will have to do it against a superior team.
No position in sports—not an NFL quarterback, not the best player on an NBA team—can influence a short series the way a goaltender can in hockey. That alone is reason to reject the conventional wisdom that says the Kings all but won the Stanley Cup on Sunday night in Chicago. New York has the hot goalie and they have offensive players who the regular season suggests can lift their performances over and above what they’ve currently done in the playoffs.