WHEN THE RANGERS rallied from a 3--1 deficit to win their second-round series against the Penguins, they held the league's best player, Sidney Crosby, scoreless for the final three games. When New York beat the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals in six games, it held P.K. Subban, who came into the series as the NHL's hottest defenseman, to a single point in its four victories. But the Rangers have not faced a team with the balanced arsenal of the Kings, a club with forwards who can defend and defensemen who can attack. That's why L.A. is SI's pick to win the Stanley Cup.
By edging the defending champion Blackhawks in the deciding game of the conference finals, the Kings became the first NHL team to survive three straight Game 7 showdowns on the road—and each of those victories came against a 100-point powerhouse (the Sharks and the Ducks preceded Chicago) from the superior Western Conference. The Kings are not easily rattled—before Sunday's game in Chicago, L.A.'s top defenseman, Drew Doughty, said in a TV interview that a round of golf makes him more nervous than a seventh game—and they are far more adaptable than the Kings team that won the Cup in 2012.
Doughty is the new prototype in L.A.: He is responsible and forceful in his own end but skilled and fearless when joining the rush. The Kings, who allowed the fewest goals (163) in the league during the regular season, can turn center ice into a quagmire for opposing forwards by cutting off passing lanes and finishing checks as well as any other team. But they can blitz too. L.A.'s attack is more explosive thanks to the late-season acquisition of sniper Marian Gaborik (above), a three-time 40-goal scorer whom the Rangers traded away in 2013; he leads all players with 12 goals this postseason and has taken pressure off scoring forwards Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. But the key this spring has been the play of defensemen like Doughty and Slava Voynov, who have been given greater freedom to create and recover pucks in the offensive zone rather than pulling up inside the blue line. "It takes a five-man unit pitching in," says coach Darryl Sutter.
L.A. has always been able to win low-scoring games—during the regular season the Kings scored the fewest goals among the 16 playoff teams—but it has now scored 73 goals in the postseason, by far the most in the NHL and 19 more than the Rangers. Doughty has four goals in the postseason, Jake Muzzin, a defenseman who has scored just 12 goals in 132 career regular-season games, has five and Alec Martinez, yet another blueliner, scored the overtime game-winner against Chicago in Game 7.
With five days off before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals the rested Rangers must steal one of the first two games in Los Angeles. New York will rely on superb goalie Henrik Lundqvist, whose .928 save percentage is tied for the best this postseason. His opposite number, Jonathan Quick, has been uneven in the playoffs, a mix of highlight-film saves and sloppy rebounds. His numbers over the first three rounds—2.86 goals-against average, .906 save percentage—are well off the 1.41 and .946 he had when the Kings won the Cup in 2012, but he has a reputation for being at his best when the pressure rises. For the Rangers to prevail they must match L.A.'s speed, create turnovers and attack Quick with odd-man rushes. It's doable: Forwards such as Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider could punish the Kings' defensemen for being aggressive on offense; having an extra man in New York's zone can leave L.A. vulnerable to the type of stretch passing that the Blackhawks used effectively against it. But even that will not be enough to keep the Kings, which boast far more offensive firepower than the Rangers, from reigning again.
Thanks to its aggressive D-men and the acquisition of sniper Marian Gaborik, L.A.'s attack is more explosive.
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