We pointed out in our Stanley Cup Final preview before Game 1 between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings, that the winner of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final has won the Cup 77% of the time since 1939 (when the Final went to a best-of-seven format). While losing the first game of the Final doesn’t automatically assure defeat in the series–obviously–that’s 75 years worth of Stanley Cup Final history to overcome. The Rangers entered the Final as clear underdogs, but had three extra days of rest, one less game of wear and tear, and a lot more speed than the Kings might have been expecting. A sluggish first period by the Kings, and just like that, the Rangers were up 2-0.
To be fair, the Kings had their chances in the first fifteen-plus minutes of the period (the Kings actually out-shot the Rangers 14-13 overall in the first period), including on a two-on-one breakaway by Trevor Lewis and Marian Gaborik, but until they scored with about two and a half minutes left in the period, they looked a bit sluggish, and definitely very sloppy.
For example, on BOTH of the Rangers’ goals, the Kings turned the puck over in the offensive zone, both of the Kings’ defensemen on the ice either stumbled or just plan whiffed on retrieving the puck, and a Rangers forward just flew down the ice alone for a prime scoring chance. On the first goal, Drew Doughty–who has been exceptional during the Kings’ playoff run–attempted to curl and drag from the center point to the left point with the puck, but Rangers forward Benoit Pouliot poke-checked the puck away from Doughty, and Jake Muzzin stumbled trying to get in front of Pouliot. So Pouliot then flew down the ice and placed a beautiful wrister top shelf to the blocker side of Jonathan Quick–who really had no chance to stop the puck.
On the second goal, the Kings were actually on a power play, but Rangers forward (and former Kings player) Brian Boyle passed the puck from the right boards to Rangers speed demon, Carl Hagelin, who was picking up speed on his way out of the Rangers’ zone. He got the puck on his stick as he was about to pass the Rangers’ blue line, and Doughty and fellow defenseman Slava Voynov appeared to be stuck in mud as Hagelin flew by them down ice. Voynov managed to get back just in time to have Hagelin’s shot–which Quick deftly stopped with his right pad–bounce off of his left skate and behind Quick into the net.
Fortunately for the Kings, they appeared to wake up toward the end of the first period–aided, no doubt, by Kings Head Coach Darryl Sutter tinkering with his lines, as he had in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks. With just about two and a half minutes to go in the period, it worked like a charm. A line of Jeff Carter, flanked by Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis, put some heavy pressure on the Rangers’ defense and produced a Derek Stepan turnover in the Rangers’ zone. After Clifford poke-checked the puck away from Stepan, it was recovered by Carter near the back of the net to Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist‘s blocker side. Carter then found Clifford right in front of the net to Lundqvist’s blocker side, and Clifford elevated the puck top-shelf past Lundqvist–to his glove side, no less.
Approximately six and a half minutes into the second period, the Kings got the equalizer on a beautiful play by Justin Williams and Drew Doughty–initiated, AGAIN, by Kyle Clifford (a guy who had previously only scored 10 points in 42 career playoff games). After Clifford sent the puck down ice to Justin Williams as he was entering the Rangers’ zone, Doughty caught up to Williams and used some crafty puck-handling–and an absolutely perfect pass from Williams just as he was nearing the slot–to find an opening right under Lundqvist’s arm-pit, to the blocker side, for the goal.
After the Kings absolutely dominated the third period–out-shooting the Rangers 20-3 (an historically dominant shot advantage), Carl Hagelin had yet ANOTHER breakaway opportunity, with only about 45 seconds remaining in the period. But, Jonathan Quick denied Hagelin yet again, and the teams proceed to overtime. At that point, it seemed that the only thing preventing the Kings from escaping Game 1 with another comeback victory was Henrik Lundqvist. Although ‘King Henrik’ made 40 saves on the night, ANOTHER Rangers turnover, about four and a half minutes into overtime, led to the winning goal. After the Kings completely flubbed a three-on-two breakaway, Tanner Pearson pursued Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi deeper into the Rangers’ zone, causing Girardi to slip and misplay the puck off the boards. The puck bounced directly to Mike Richards, who then found Justin Williams ALL alone in the slot, from where he would bury the game-winning overtime goal–top-shelf to Lundqvist’s blocker side (sensing a trend yet?).
For the Kings, the biggest takeaways from Game 1 are that, well–first and foremost–they won. Whenever a pretty obvious underdog enters a championship series in any sport, the first game is often the biggest opportunity to stun a favorite that may have underestimated the underdog, or at least in this case–may have been a bit tired, AND not been prepared for the underdog’s speed. Other than the obvious missed opportunity by the Rangers, there are other important takeaways here:
- The Kings need to do a MUCH better job accounting for the Rangers’ speed, and particularly, Carl Hagelin’s speed. Hagelin cannot gets two or three breakaways one-on-none per game.
- Jonathan Quick looked like Jonathan Quick. While he was beat fair and square by Bernard Pouliot on the first goal of the game, Quick cleanly stopped Hagelin’s shot that ended up deflecting off of Voynov’s skate–as he was streaking toward the net–right behind Quick for the Rangers’ second goal. Quick was otherwise stellar all night.
- The Kings’ sluggishness/sloppiness continues to rear its ugly head. Of course, after everything the Kings have endured and accomplished during this playoff run, it’s really hard to expect them to skate with fresh legs EVERY game, ALL game long. Frankly, I think that most fans are willing to accept some measure of sluggishness/sloppiness, BUT, the very careless puck management in the offensive zone is easily fixed. As we discussed above, on both of the Rangers’ goals, both of the Kings’ defensemen on the ice didn’t seem to be worried about any Rangers counter-attack and were caught flat-footed. There has to be a better awareness of which Rangers forwards are on the ice and where those forward are at all times. After all, the Rangers ARE known for their speed, so this is no surprise.
One other positive for the Kings heading into Game 2 is that defenseman Robyn Regehr is finally expected to rejoin the lineup after a month-long absence due to a knee injury. He is expected to replace Matt Greene in the rotation, although that decision is not expected to be made until before game-time. Assuming Regehr returns, however, the Kings will be at full strength for the first time since their first round series with the San Jose Sharks. After surviving a scare in Game 1, it would seem that the Kings are now poised to impose their will on the Rangers and take control of this series.