GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- If the New York Rangers do have a rooting interest in Sunday night’s Game 7 of the Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks, they are not tipping their hand.
Both potential opponents, the winner of which will face the Blueshirts in the 2014 Stanley Cup finals, present their own set of star players and stiff competition.
Both potential foes have experience, too. The defending champion Hawks look to pull out a third straight victory against the Kings on Sunday in order to restore hope of securing back-to-back titles.
Los Angeles beat the New Jersey Devils for the Cup two years ago.
As Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said Sunday: “Pick your poison.”
“Both sides, obviously, they’ve been scoring a lot of goals. They’ve both been creating a lot of offense. Both have great goaltenders that are capable of stealing games. It’s two tough teams,” Staal added. “Whoever it is, tomorrow we’ll take a look at them.”
Whereas the Kings are noted as playing a more physical, heavy game and the Hawks are noted for their impressive forward depth, both clubs come with their own challenges. Though the Rangers had a vigorous practice Sunday, a luxury this time of year, they did not have the benefit of game planning for which team they’ll face. Vigneault said the team’s approach will be adjusted based on who wins Sunday.
Either way, they are in for a daunting test of will.
“They’re battle-tested. They’ve both played on the big stage and won. Different styles,” Vigneault said. “Obviously, L.A. is a little bigger, but both teams have a puck possession game that makes it real hard to get it back. Different challenge, but two good teams.”
Though the Kings have been characterized by some as the most dangerous team in hockey with arguably the top playoff performer in stud 24-year-old defenseman Drew Doughty, L.A. has surrendered two straight to Chicago. Now, the Hawks have their own building behind them as they try to punch their ticket for the next round.
Should L.A. advance, however, they will have played three grueling seven-game series heading into the finals.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have a lengthy respite after finishing off the Montreal Canadiens in six games.
“I don’t know if it’s -- put it this way: I don’t know if we get an advantage over the other team, but we are welcoming the rest and regrouping. We’ve played a lot of hockey since March 1,” said de facto Rangers captain Brad Richards. “Whether it’s an advantage I don’t know. But we’d rather go in with a little more rest and preparation than not, and that’s basically what it comes down to.”
Whether the Rangers are willing to admit as much, they will also enter the next round as underdogs among media types and fans around the league.
While the caliber and quality of play out West has been impressive, with both the Kings and Hawks battling in a great series, with Games 5 and 6 being particularly riveting, high-octane and dramatic slug-fests, the Eastern Conference play has not received quite the same billing.
“That’s a tough question. We believe in ourselves in here. No matter who we play, they’re a great team. They’ve [each] won the Cup [once] in the past two years,” said winger Rick Nash, who is coming off a pair of impressive outings in Games 5 and 6 against the Habs. “Either way, we’re going to have our hands full and we definitely don’t have the experience besides three guys in this dressing room that they have in theirs.”
But lack of experience, or lack of belief from the outside world, doesn’t change how the Rangers feel about their chances. They are here. They have a shot. And they believe.
Said rugged fourth-line forward Brian Boyle, with emphasis: “We need no outside motivation.”