LOS ANGELES — Two hours before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night, commissioner Gary Bettman declared that “by any measure this may have been the most successful season on and off the ice in NHL history.”
He had a strong case. After another lockout disrupted another season in 2012-13, the NHL rebounded in 2013-14 – record attendance and record revenues; six outdoor games and an Olympics; a new alignment and playoff format. Of the first 14 playoff series, seven went the full seven games. Five others went six.
And now this: the New York Rangers vs. the Los Angeles Kings. Though the NHL has come close – Anaheim-New Jersey, L.A.-New Jersey – it has never had a New York-L.A. final before. Bettman made sure to point out that the major pro sports leagues haven’t had a New York-L.A. championship scenario since the 1981 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers.
But will this be the exclamation point at the end, a classic that will help grow the game and the business? Or will it be an anticlimax? The series began in dramatic fashion with a 3-2 overtime victory for the Kings, but does that portend more drama? Or will it actually lead to the opposite because the underdog Rangers blew a 2-0 lead and an opportunity?
“Sports fans who might not necessarily be NHL fans, they will be intrigued and captivated if the hockey’s good,” Bettman said.
Key phrase: if the hockey’s good. If the hockey isn’t good – not necessarily by hockey-snob standards, but by casual-fan standards – the NHL won’t benefit as much from having its two largest markets in its marquee event with a record number of media credentialed.
“If this series is going to resonate, it’s going to be because of what takes place on the ice,” Bettman said. “Hopefully it won’t be the case. If it’s not a very compelling series, it wouldn’t matter where it was being played. But it is getting a tremendous amount of attention.”
Thousands of fans packed Bryant Park in Manhattan to watch Game 1 on a big screen. Some celebrities showed up at Staples Center, as usual, including comedian Larry David. So was it pretty … pretty … pretty good?
Well, it had its moments. The Rangers’ Benoit Pouliot scoring on a breakaway. The Rangers’ Carl Hagelin winning a race with the Kings’ Slava Voynov, streaking in alone and scoring on a lucky bounce. The Kings coming back, with Drew Doughty toe-dragging the puck past the Rangers’ Derek Dorsett, scoring the tying goal and belly-flopping into the glass. A back-and-forth sequence at the end of regulation – Hagelin stoned on a breakaway by Jonathan Quick, who looked one way while the puck went the other afterward; the Kings’ Jeff Carter denied on a wraparound seconds later when the puck went off Hagelin and a goal post.
But frankly, a lot of the game wasn’t pretty, let alone pretty … pretty … pretty good, and the Rangers lost a game they needed to win.
The Rangers were the more-rested team – they wrapped up the Eastern Conference final Thursday night; the Kings wrapped up the Western Conference final on Sunday – and it showed. They looked much faster than the Kings in the first two periods. The Kings looked out of sync. Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell joked the trainers put boots in the stalls instead of skates. To a man, the Kings said they didn’t play their best game.
“When the legs feel heavy like they did tonight, sometimes the mind starts to wander and you don’t play on the right side of pucks in the right positions, and that speed can be really, really effective,” Mitchell said.
Yet the Rangers failed to take advantage of it. They let a 2-0 lead slip away. The game was tied after two, 2-2, and the Kings dominated after that. They took the first 14 shots of the third. They outshot the Rangers in the period, 20-3. Even though a lot of those shots were from the outside, they looked like the team they were expected to be, controlling the puck, controlling the play. In overtime, the Rangers’ Dan Girardi coughed up the puck, and Mike Richards made a quick pass. Justin Williams ended it.
“Not quite sure what happened there in the third,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “Not sure if it was them being that good or us stopping moving the puck and skating and going north-south.”
The answer will determine whether this is a boon for the NHL, the New York-L.A. dream series, or whether this is a dud.
If the Rangers can use that speed again and force the Kings into more mistakes, if they can take off in transition and cash in on their opportunities, they have a chance to make this interesting at minimum and pull off an upset at best.
“I didn’t think that the ice was tilted at any time before [the third period],” said Rangers center Brad Richards. “It seems like they came with a big push there, and we let it go on too long. But that being said, it’s only one game, and we’re going to overtime. We got a taste of what they’re going to be, and we learn from it and move on.”
Just a taste, though. Neither team’s legs should be heavier than the other’s after this. Both teams have two days off before Game 2 on Saturday night. Fatigue should not be a factor anymore. If the Kings are really that good, if they can really play keep-away like they did in the third period, they have the ability to make this quick.
“We found a way to win,” said Kings center Mike Richards. “But I think everybody wants to forget about this game.”
The NHL is hoping for unforgettable.
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