By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – The National Hockey League (NHL) will have the Stanley Cup Finals it dreamed of when the New York Rangers face the Los Angeles Kings in a bone-jarring drama played out in the United States’ two biggest media markets.
Not since the New York Yankees took on the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 1981 World Series, have Tinsel Town and the Big Apple squared off for a major sporting championship and for the NHL the showdown between the Kings and Rangers is sure to mean unprecedented exposure.
The best-of-seven series which begins on Wednesday in Los Angeles features two battle hardened teams in a compelling final rich in Hollywood type storylines and subplots.
Both Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center will be packed with celebrity A-list hockey fans like soccer great David Beckham and super model Kate Upton but it is the casual hockey fan the NHL will be focused on as the league seizes a chance to pull in new followers.
The Rangers, one of the league’s Original Six franchises, can claim some of the NHL’s most loyal supporters who have waited two decades for another shot at the cup while the Kings, champions in 2012, return to the finals for the second time three years.
“The past few years, we’ve tried to earn the respect of the league,” said Kings forward Justin Williams. “L.A. is not just a place to come and play a hockey game and work on your tan.
“We want to put L.A. on the map, and put it significantly on the map with regards to hockey.”
Certainly there can be no disputing the Rangers and Kings both earned their spots in the finals.
After falling behind 3-0 to San Jose in their opening round series, the Kings had looked poised to make a quick playoff exit but have fought their way through to the finals by winning three best-of-seven series against the Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks that all went the distance.
In elimination games this post-season the Kings are a perfect 7-0 clinching a berth in the cup finals by finishing off the defending champion Blackhawks 5-4 in a Game Seven overtime thriller.
“You need everybody when you get to Game Seven, you’re not into the individual part of it,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter, after watching his team become the first to win three Game Sevens en route to the finals. “We prefer not to get to Game Seven. Game Seven is about winning the game, doing whatever it takes.”
The Rangers’ path to the finals was no less grueling, New York needing seven games to see off Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins before defeating the Montreal Canadiens in six games to claim the Eastern conference crown.
To reach a Stanley Cup Finals teams require quality netminding and the Kings and Rangers feature two of the very best in Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist.
Quick is a proven post-season performer having claimed the Conn Smythe trophy as the Stanley Cup playoffs most valuable player in leading the Kings to their first ever championship two years ago.
At the other end of the rink, the Rangers’ Lundqvist has long been considered one of the tops in the puck-stopping business, taking Vezina Trophy honors as the NHL’s top netminder in 2012 and backstopping Sweden to a gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics and a silver at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
“When it’s only two-or-three seconds left and you realize you did it, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Lundqvist after the Rangers cemented their first appearance in the finals since hoisting the cup in 1994. “But what took us there is the entire team really stepped up in key moments throughout the year, but especially the playoffs.”
Having traded away their captain Ryan Callahan and with new coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers have emerged as this season’s team of destiny.
At the trade deadline New York dealt Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Martin St. Louis, a former-league most valuable player and aging dynamic offensive force who became the Rangers’ inspirational touchstone.
When St. Louis’s mother suddenly passed away during the East finals against Montreal, the Rangers rallied around their grieving team mate, who found comfort and solace on the ice scoring the overtime winner in Game Four against the Canadiens to keep New York’s cup push on track.
The close-knit Rangers can find similar inspiration up and down their bench.
Dominic Moore, who scored the only goal in the 1-0 victory that eliminated Montreal, sat out the 2012-13 season after losing his wife to cancer while Derek Stepan played the last two games of the series with a broken jaw and cannot eat solid food for six weeks.
Like the Rangers, the Kings added a key piece to their post-season puzzle by acquiring Slovak Marian Gaborik from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline.
Gaborik, who had just 11 goals during the regular season leads the playoff in scoring with 12. Only Wayne Gretzky with 15 has scored more goals for the Kings in a single post-season.
(Editing by Gene Cherry)