You have to imagine a New York Rangers viewing party Friday night. Guys huddled around the big screen, propping their feet up, maybe scarfing down some popcorn.
Having already punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup finals with a series-clinching victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday, the Blueshirts have the luxury of a few days off while they await their opponent.
With the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks duking it out in yet another thrilling, high-octane game Friday, the Rangers must have been hoping for as many overtime periods as possible. It didn’t play out that way -- the Blackhawks won 4-3 in regulation -- but even so, New York must be pretty pleased.
In staving off elimination for the second straight game, the defending Stanley Cup champs forced a Game 7 back in Chicago on Sunday, meaning these two teams will have one more chance to pound on each other, all while the Rangers continue to recover.
Considering that whichever team makes it out of the West will likely be heavily favored in the Final, the Rangers' opportunity to rest and regroup for six days between games may be hugely beneficial.
So, which team provides the better matchup for the Rangers? Let’s take a look at both:
Two words, folks: Drew Doughty. The stud defenseman has been arguably the best player this entire postseason, delivering dominating shifts at each end of the ice and dazzling spectators with his remarkable skill set (see: pass to Alec Martinez, third period, Game 6). And what’s more amazing is that he is only 24 years old! No matter how many minutes Doughty logs, he always seems hungry and capable of more. Up front, the Kings have one of the best two-way centers in the game in Anze Kopitar. Oh, and remember old friend Marian Gaborik? Yeah, he is leading the league with 11 playoff goals. Jonathan Quick has had some shaky moments this spring, with a .906 save percentage, so that may be a potential weakness should the Kings advance.
Another deep, experienced team with some of the most dynamic game-breakers in the NHL in Patrick Kane and do-it-all workhorse captain Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks also have Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith anchoring their blue line, though the veteran defenseman has not had a standout series against Los Angeles. Corey Crawford, like Quick, has shown chinks in the armor -- though he made some sensational, and timely, stops in Game 6 that helped the Hawks send the series back to Chicago. The Blackhawks’ biggest strength is their depth up front, with players like Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad to complement Toews and Kane, the latter of whom had two goals and one assist in Game 6.
Verdict: Though the Kings will be forced to play their third Game 7 this spring and may feel the fatigue factor should they advance, I still think the Rangers have a better chance against Chicago. The Blueshirts were 2-0 this season against the Blackhawks and may be able to surprise the defending champs if goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can steal a few games. He’ll have to be better than he has been through the first 20 games of the playoffs, but he comes in with an edge over either Crawford or Quick, in my opinion. The Hawks are a deep, well-rounded and physical team, but if the Rangers can find a way to exploit their speed, New York can make the series an interesting one.