LOS ANGELES — To qualify for the Stanley Cup Final, the Kings dispatched Corey Crawford, Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen, John Gibson, Antti Niemi, and Alex Stalock — no murderers’ row of puck-stopping prowess.
But the cupcakes end starting Wednesday at the Staples Center.
In Game 1, the Kings will face the King.
Henrik Lundqvist is the best goalie left in the playoffs. Aside from a Game 5 meltdown against Montreal in the Eastern Conference finals (four goals on 19 shots), Lundqvist (12-7, 2.03 goals-against average, .928 save percentage) has been excellent throughout the postseason.
In his bounce-back performance in Game 6, Lundqvist posted 18 saves, including a dandy on Thomas Vanek, to backstop the Rangers to a 1-0 win.
“To have played against him for many years and now to have him on my side, it’s inspiring,” said Martin St. Louis.
The Kings, who won the Cup in 2012, are fast, strong, deep, talented, and experienced. They have game-breaking talent at the three most important positions: goal, defense, and center.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick carried the Kings to the Cup two years ago. Drew Doughty is one of, if not the best, in the league on defense, according to Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. And Anze Kopitar is Los Angeles’s version of Patrice Bergeron: a smart, skilled, responsible, two-way center.
The Kings batted the crowns off the heads of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks to advance to the Final.
In the previous round, they knocked off the Ducks, who finished just a point off the Bruins’ league-leading pace.
After losing the first three games of the opening round to the rip-roaring Sharks, the Kings found their rhythm and won four straight against San Jose. The Sharks, still reeling, are in panic mode — Dan Boyle won’t be back, Brent Burns is moving to defense, Joe Thornton could be moved — because of the bungled chance.
The Kings won three straight seven-game series for a reason. They’re awfully good.
“They play a real strong, hard game,” said Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. “They compete really hard every shift.
“They’re down, 3-0, against San Jose and they come back. If you’ve won three Games 7s, you’re obviously doing something right. We have to make sure we’re ready for their battle level and their will to win.
“They play a simple game. But they throw everything at the net. They’ve got big bodies. They crash the net hard.”
But one reason the Kings won three straight Game 7s is that they ripped up six so-so goalies. Against the Kings, Crawford, Hiller, Andersen, Gibson, Niemi, and Stalock combined for an .895 save percentage. In the Western Conference finals, Crawford had an .878 save percentage.
Those are statistics that don’t even approach the league standard of acceptable goaltending.
The Kings earned most of their goals. They have a wicked 1-2 punch at center with Kopitar (5-19—24 in the playoffs, most of any player) and Jeff Carter (9-13—22). Carter, a complementary player in Philadelphia and Columbus, has turned into a three-zone star.
This will be the best center combination the Rangers will play since they swatted away Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the second round.
Marian Gaborik, the ex-Ranger, has a league-leading 12 playoff goals. Gaborik is deadly off the rush and hard to cover in tight. The right wing scored 114 goals in three-plus seasons on Broadway.
“Gabby’s been on quite a run in the playoffs for them,” Ryan McDonagh said of his former teammate. “He’s a guy who’s going to score goals and be creative. He scores big goals. We’ve seen that when he was with us in New York.
“For us, we have to know when he’s on the ice and understand his explosive skating ability. We’ve got to try to stay in his face and keep a tight gap on him so he doesn’t have time to utilize his legs.”
But the Kings also scored some gimmes. In Game 7, Chicago was up, 2-0, in the first and was rolling. Then Crawford burped out a long-distance Dustin Brown shot, and Carter scored on the rebound with 3:29 remaining in the period to give the Kings life.
It’s not going to be so easy to score against Lundqvist. He made his show-stopping save in Game 6 against Vanek when it was 0-0 in the second. Vanek had an in-tight chance, but Lundqvist dropped his stick, threw his blocker skyward, and punched out the puck.
Like Quick, Lundqvist is athletic. But the 6-foot-1-inch, 188-pound Lundqvist is at his best when he’s quiet, deep in his crease, and looking bigger than the Statue of Liberty he wears on his mask. Lundqvist’s airtight postseason play is why the Rangers made him the richest goalie in the league ($8.5 million annually starting in 2014-15).
“We’re kind of the opposites,” Lundqvist said. “He’s extremely aggressive. He’s like a gymnast out there. He’s so quick and so powerful.
“I sit back. I try to stay deep in my net. In the end, it’s about stopping the puck. He does it really well. It’s going to be a fun challenge for me.”
Quick (21-12, 2.86 GAA, .906 save percentage) has been good. But not great.
The Rangers will test Quick. McDonagh is the Rangers’ best defenseman at retrieving pucks and getting them up the ice. The Rangers roll three fast, skilled, and strong lines. Their fourth line of Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle, and Derek Dorsett likes to crack heads.
The Kings will have last change in Games 1 and 2. They could deploy Doughty and Jake Muzzin, their top defensive pairing, against New York’s top line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, and Rick Nash. That would free up Kopitar to play against the No. 2 line of St. Louis, Carl Hagelin, and Brad Richards.
The Kings are good defensively, but New York has speed on all four lines. Kreider will back up Doughty. Hagelin and St. Louis are twin burners on Richards’s flanks. Mats Zuccarello, the Rangers’ No. 3 right wing, scoots like mad. Dorsett closes swiftly on defensemen to check them into next week.
The Rangers could also get help by Game 4. Fourth-line pest Dan Carcillo had been suspended for 10 games because of an altercation he had with linesman Scott Driscoll against the Canadiens. On Tuesday, commissioner Gary Bettman reduced Carcillo’s suspension to six games. He has served three so far.
The Rangers, however, are hoping they won’t need Carcillo’s help. They’re poised to start the series well. They’ll have had five days between games. The Kings will be rebounding off the emotion of finishing Chicago in overtime in Game 7. This is New York’s time to shine.