(SportsNetwork.com) - The Stanley Cup Finals get underway Wednesday night in the City of Angels, as the Los Angeles Kings host the New York Rangers in Game 1 from Staples Center.
Both the Kings and Rangers have faced a long road to get to this stage, with Los Angeles playing 21 games -- one more than New York. With a 5-4 overtime win over Chicago in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, Los Angeles became the first team in NHL history to reach the Stanley Cup Finals with three Game 7 victories. The fact that L.A. managed to win all three of those decisive contests on the road makes the feat all the more impressive.
The Kings won't have a shot at winning another road Game 7 in 2014, however, as they hold home-ice advantage in this series due to a higher point total than the Rangers during the regular season. Game 2 of this best-of-seven series is set for Saturday in L.A. before the venue shifts to New York's Madison Square Garden for Games 3 and 4.
Los Angeles is aiming for its second Stanley Cup title in three years after winning the franchise's first championship in 2012. The Rangers, meanwhile, are in the Cup Finals for the first time since winning their last title in 1994.
The Kings began this postseason by overcoming a 3-0 deficit to beat San Jose in the opening round, becoming only the fourth team in NHL history to win a series after dropping the first three games. L.A. then rallied from down 3-2 to beat Anaheim in the conference semifinals before outlasting the Blackhawks for the Western Conference title.
Los Angeles was nearly on the wrong end of a postseason collapse in the Chicago series. The Blackhawks, who won the Cup in 2013 after beating the Kings in the conference finals, were down 3-1 in the West finals before rallying to force Game 7. However, the Kings won the decisive test 5-4 in overtime to dethrone the 2013 champions.
"It was such an emotional series (against Chicago), and we always talk about how you can't get too high and too low," Kings center Anze Kopitar said. "Now it's a time to relax a little bit, but at the same time get your heads right for (Wednesday). Obviously it's the first time that we've gotten home ice right now, and it's very nice, and we're going to have to cash in on it."
New York went the distance in each of the first two rounds, beating Philadelphia in seven before coming back from 3-1 down to defeat Pittsburgh in Round 2. The Eastern Conference finals went a little smoother, with the Rangers downing Montreal in six games to reach the Cup Finals for the first time in two decades.
The Kings and Rangers are built similarly with solid depth at both ends of the ice and star goaltenders manning the crease. New York's main asset is team speed, while L.A. has arguably the deepest forward group in the NHL and plays a cohesive defensive system under the tutelage of head coach Darryl Sutter.
L.A. was a team that struggled scoring goals heading into the playoffs, but the club's offensive production has spiked dramatically since the postseason began. The Kings ranked 26th in the NHL with 2.42 goals per game in the regular season, but is the highest-scoring team in this postseason with 3.48 goals per contest. The added offensive punch has come at a cost on defense, however, as L.A. was No. 1 in the league with 2.05 goals against during the regular season but is surrendering an average of 2.86 goals in the playoffs.
Marian Gaborik, who was acquired from Columbus at this season's trade deadline, has been a huge boost for Los Angeles' offense in the playoffs. The former New York Ranger is leading all players in the postseason with 12 goals and also has added seven assists. Jeff Carter, who had eight goals to help L.A. lift the Cup in 2012, already has nine goals in this postseason. He is second in the league with 22 points this spring, sitting behind only Kopitar, who has five goals and 19 assists.
Kopitar, a finalist for this season's Selke Trophy, is perhaps the Kings' best all-around forward. He is leading all L.A. forwards with 20 minutes, 18 seconds of ice time per game and is a valuable weapon for Sutter in all situations.
The Kings forward depth keeps on going from there, with veteran players like captain Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams logging valuable minutes.
Drew Doughty is a dynamic talent at the back end for Los Angeles and is leading all defensemen this postseason with 16 points (4G, 12A). He also is averaging 27:50 of ice time and has the ability to take over a game.
Kings netminder Jonathan Quick is generally considered to be one of the better goaltenders in the league, but he hasn't been on the top of his game this spring. The 28-year-old American has a 2.86 goals against average and .906 save percentage this season, with both of those numbers falling well short of the standards set over his previous two postseasons.
In 2012, Quick boasted a 1.41 GAA and .946 save percentage. Last season, when L.A. lost in the conference finals to Chicago, the Connecticut native had a .934 save percentage and 1.86 GAA.
While Quick hasn't exactly played up to his potential this season, Henrik Lundqvist is a big reason the Rangers find themselves back in the Cup Finals. The Swedish goaltender is having the best postseason of his already noteworthy career, posting a 2.03 GAA and .928 save percentage in 20 games this spring. He came through with his first shutout of the 2014 playoffs to wrap up the series against Montreal, anchoring a 1-0 victory in Game 6 of the conference finals.
The 32-year-old Lundqvist won an Olympic gold medal with Team Sweden in 2006, but has yet to reach the top of the NHL mountain. He'll likely need to be New York's best player for the club to help the Rangers earn their fifth Stanley Cup championship.
Back in '94, New York followed captain and unquestioned team leader Mark Messier to the promised land, but this current iteration of the Rangers is captain-less. Having nobody to wear the "C" obviously hasn't hindered the Blueshirts at all this spring, and that's due in part to the leadership provided by Martin St. Louis, who was acquired in March from Tampa Bay in the deal that sent previous team captain Ryan Callahan to the Lightning.
The Rangers rallied around St. Louis in the conference semifinals following the sudden death of the veteran winger's mother. With his team down 3-1 in the series, St. Louis played in Game 5 in Pittsburgh just one day after learning of the death of his mother. It was a turning point for New York in both the series and postseason.
With 13 points in 20 playoff games, St. Louis is tied with fellow forward Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh for the team scoring lead.
The 38-year-old St. Louis brings a wealth of playoff experience to the Rangers. He won a Stanley Cup title with Tampa Bay in 2004 along with Brad Richards, who has five goals and six assists in 20 playoff games this spring. Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Lightning in '04 and has compiled 89 points (33G, 56A) over 113 career postseason games. St. Louis has 81 points (39G, 42A) over 82 lifetime playoff appearances.
"When you have a captain you help and you defer to your captain," Richards said. "Now it's more by committee."
Although Richards and St. Louis provide much-needed experience in the Cup Finals, the last time an NHL club without a captain won the Stanley Cup was the 1972 Boston Bruins.
In addition to the former Tampa Bay champions, the Rangers' forward group is loaded with speed and scoring. New York boasts 12 forwards with two or more goals in this postseason and seven of those guys have four or more markers.
One of New York's best offensive weapons in Round 3 was defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who pumped in 10 points (2G, 8A) from the back end in six games against the Canadiens. In addition to leading New York's blue line in goals (3) and assists (10) this spring, McDonagh is logging a team-high average ice time of 25:11 per contest.
This will be the third all-time playoff meetings between these franchises. New York won the previous two encounters, sweeping a three-game series in the opening round in 1979 before taking another first-round encounter in 1981, beating the Kings, 3-1.
The Kings and Rangers met twice this season and each team picked up a road victory. New York posted a 3-1 decision at the Staples Center on Oct. 7, while L.A. recorded a 1-0 triumph on Nov. 17. Lundqvist played in both games for New York, but Quick only played in the loss at New York. Ben Scrivens, currently a member of the Edmonton Oilers, posted the shutout for the Kings on Nov. 17.