All of the Hollywood story lines are not out of Los Angeles this year but New York instead.
With the Kings and Rangers meeting for the Stanley Cup starting Wednesday in L.A., the former look better on paper while the latter perhaps belong on the silver screen. The Kings are coming off a Cup win in 2012 and have just finished playing in their third straight Western Conference final. The Rangers, meanwhile, have had more than a few missteps since their own appearance in the 2012 Eastern final.
In fact, it goes back a few more years to the 2004–05 NHL lockout. New York was the team made to feel most guilty for over-spending on star talent when the league instituted its current salary cap. Players like Pavel Bure, Chris Drury, and Scott Gomez did not produce in New York’s blue shirts and the organization became an easy target for critics of the financial imbalances in hockey.
Yet all stories turn at some point and for general manager Glen Sather, that may have come when he traded the aforementioned Gomez to the Montreal Canadiens for, among other spare parts, Chris Higgins and Ryan McDonagh. On Tuesday, Sather told the media he had never seen McDonagh play before trading for him. Now he’s the most important defender on the roster.
The biggest overhaul though has been in the last calendar year. Firing coach John Tortorella and hiring Alain Vigneault has produced immediate results. Last spring, the Rangers were eliminated in the second round, with Tortorella benching Brad Richards in Game 7 of that series.
“No one came to me and said ‘God, you’re kicking the hell out of us’,” said Tortorella about his Rangers team to TSN shortly after he was hired in Vancouver. “My general manager told me, ‘You lost the team, you’re out of here.’”
With clear vulnerability, he then spoke about his one regret as Rangers coach— damaging his relationship with Richards.
“When the game’s done,” he said. “Relationships are all you have left. That’s a tough one for me.”
Vigneault has stunned the hockey world with his remarkable turnaround of this team. In one year, New York has seen a new coach reverse the team’s fortunes, resilience to injuries from players like Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan, two regular season wins in baseball stadiums, a trade that saw their captain—Callahan—swapped for the finely-aged Martin St. Louis, and a goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist recover from an uncharacteristically mediocre start of the season to having his best playoff performance to date.
St. Louis’ loss of his mother during the playoff run, the memory of Dominic Moore’s loss of his wife in January of 2013, and the overhaul in team philosophy from the manager to the coach has sentimental hockey fans rooting for the fairy tale ending.
And though this year’s New York Rangers have graduated from hockey’s second tier, the benchmark organization remains the Los Angeles Kings.
Like the Detroit Red Wings before them, the Kings have drafted well in selecting Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Drew Doughty all in the first round. They have made the right trades in securing Jeff Carter and playoff goal-scoring leader Marian Gaborik to bolster their offence. Consistency throughout their lineup has produced a long run of success.
But they have received as many punches this postseason as they’ve handed out and are not the same team that won in 2012, despite the 14 players that still remain form that run. Conn Smythe-winner Jonathan Quick has not been the main reason for their appearance in the final as evidenced by the high-scoring series with the Chicago Blackhawks.
This year’s Rangers will likely remain beloved by their fans should they not provide the storybook ending many hope for. Even Steve Zaretsky, one of the two brothers who held up the famous “Now I Can Die In Peace” sign at the Rangers’ last Cup victory in 1994, spoke about the 2014 Rangers. “I won’t be disappointed if they lose in the finals this time,” he told NJ.com.
The pressure is off of the Rangers at a time when everything has come together, but to beat a team like the Kings in the Stanley Cup final would truly be an ending only Hollywood could come up with.