Hockey fever has hit New York City as the New York Rangers head to the Left Coast to face the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, hockey’s version of the World Series on Wednesday night.
Most hockey experts picked the Boston Bruins or the Pittsburgh Penguins to emerge from the Eastern Conference, but the Bruins fell to the Montreal Canadiens in an upset, and the Rangers stood tall in a Game 7 to oust the favored Penguins.
The Kings have been in the finals twice in the past three seasons and just won a thrilling seven-game series against the defending champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. L.A. is the first team to win three Game 7s on the road in the playoffs. The Kings are big, relentless and talented and will surely test New York. Drew Doughty is a great defenseman, and Jonathan Quick excels in goal. Anze Kopitar is also an elite player for L.A.
New York’s playoff picture changed dramatically when, just before Game 5 of the Pittsburgh series, with the Rangers on the verge of being eliminated, winger Martin St. Louis’ mother, France St. Louis, suddenly died of a heart attack. St. Louis attended the funeral in his hometown of Montreal, and flew back in time for Game 5 in Pittsburgh. The team rallied around St. Louis and won that game and the next two to come back from a 3-1 series deficit.
The Rangers then became a factor in the NHL playoffs. The combination of team speed, hard checking, tough defense, timely scoring and goalie Henrik Lundqvist saw New York beat Montreal in the hotly contested Eastern Conference Finals. Emotions ran high as players got ejected for brutal hits. Derek Stepan, a Rangers center, suffered a broken jaw as he was smashed by a Montreal player. Stepan played the rest of the series with a special face guard to protect his jaw.
This is the first time the Rangers have been in the Finals since 1994, when Captain Mark Messier finally helped bring the Cup to Madison Square Garden.
First year coach Alain Vigneault has pushed the right buttons to get the Blue Shirts back to the Finals. The Rangers picked up St. Louis, 38, a longtime fixture in Tampa Bay, for Ryan Callahan and two high draft picks.
St. Louis only had one goal in 19 regular season games, but has turned it on in the playoffs, scoring six goals and seven assists. The Rangers have gotten excellent play from Ryan McDonagh, Stepan and Brian Boyle. Rick Nash, a goal scorer, is always a threat to light it up, and Lundqvist is one of the top goalies in the league.
The Rangers are rested and ready, and the die-hard Rangers fans will be crossing their fingers, fist bumping and saying prayers for the next two weeks. Strap in … it’s going be a heck of a roller coaster ride.
Richard Kagan is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.