Rangers, Kings go after one prize
LOS ANGELES -- This is where the roads converge.
Two teams from opposite sides of the continent, carrying different expectations and having to ford different streams of adversity, will meet in the Stanley Cup finals.
But before that, the NHL's annual media day provided a chance to reflect, to assess the journeys, to take in the personalities of the players who have been part of the journey the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers have made to get four wins away from immortality.
The series will soon begin to develop its personality, the momentum of Game 1 pushing the teams forward into Game 2 and so on and so on.
But before the most important two weeks of the NHL season begin, Tuesday provided a unique opportunity to give a nod to the bricks and mortar from which these teams are constructed and from which a champion will emerge.
It gave us a chance to catch up with guys like Derek Stepan, who still can't quite open his mouth fully after suffering a broken jaw courtesy of former teammate Brandon Prust in the Eastern Conference finals.
"No, I can't chew. I won't be able to chew until six weeks," Stepan told a small group of reporters.
"No, it's not wired shut. I can't open it all the way but I'm able to move it a little bit. We were pretty fortunate it's just a single break; it wasn't a bunch of breaks which normally happens."
Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun, Katie Strang and Barry Melrose preview the Stanley Cup finals showdown between the L.A. Kings and the New York Rangers.
A few meters away was Dominic Moore, who in many ways illustrates the strong emotional bond that has grown around this team.
He has enjoyed success, going to the conference finals three times in his past four seasons with Montreal, Tampa and the Rangers, but he also took a season away from hockey after the death of his wife, Katie, from liver cancer.
"I've been in three conference finals in my last four seasons, the league's last five seasons I guess," he said Tuesday.
"To play in the finals, this first opportunity is incredibly special. I'm excited about it. It's one of those things you've dreamt about being able to play for a Stanley Cup from when you were 3 years old. To be here is incredible and I feel very proud to be a part of our team that's got to this point."
While the Kings are back to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years and have been to the final four in three straight years, the Rangers are a team separated from that kind of success by a generation of players and fans, as their last Cup appearance came in 1994, when they defeated Vancouver in a classic seven-game tilt.
"You go along in your career and you realize how hard it is to get there," St. Louis said. "I was fortunate to win one before, but since then, I've realized how hard it is to get there. I appreciate it."
St. Louis, who won a Cup with Richards in Tampa in 2004, has become a central figure in the Rangers' run to the finals. It's not just that he was acquired by the Rangers at the trade deadline in exchange for former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, but the sudden death of his mother during the second round of the playoffs became a rallying cry for the entire Rangers team.
"My teammates have been nothing but supportive, with everything," St. Louis said. "You come to a new team, the support I got was great, but then with the situation with my mom, even greater support then. The whole Rangers organization was unbelievable."
St. Louis felt he had to earn the trust of a new room, but it fell to others like Richards to fill the leadership void created by Callahan's departure.
Richards said Tuesday that he made a quiet but conscious decision to make sure he did his part to ensure the leadership core held together.
"To myself, yeah," said Richards. "You kind of had to recognize, 'OK, he's gone.'
"Cally and [head coach Alain Vigneault] did a lot of things with scheduling and stuff. Little things like that, little things around the room. It's not like I didn't know what was going on before ... I still was around long enough to have a pulse of the room.
"When you have a captain, you defer. Now it's more by committee."
Quick took a hard high shot during the Kings' skate earlier but seemed none the worse for wear and proclaimed himself 100 percent healthy.
He better be.
The matchup between two elite puck stoppers stands as one of the dominant storylines heading into the finals, even if Quick has allowed 13 goals in his past three games and has a .906 save percentage through 21 postseason games this spring.
"He's one of the best in the league, but we're kind of the opposites," Lundqvist said.
"He's extremely aggressive. He's like a gymnast out there. He's so quick. He's so powerful. I sit back. I try to stay deep in my net and maybe more in position. In the end, it's about stopping the puck and he does it really well. It's going to be a fun challenge for me and you have to expect going into the playoffs that every team has a great goalie. But 'Quickie' is obviously up there in the tops in the league."
Quick has been here, accomplished much, been a difference-maker on a championship team, while Lundqvist will be appearing in his first Stanley Cup finals.
"I got the question going into the playoffs, do I have anything to prove? I don't feel that way," Lundqvist said. "I see this as a great opportunity for us as a team and me personally to try to win a Cup. I've been in New York for nine years. It's been a dream ever since I came to New York to try to win and bring a Cup to New York. We definitely have the team to do it. Now it comes down to everyone needing to play their absolute best, and that's going to give us a chance to win."
The Kings are in a vastly different place than the Rangers in terms of their recent success. They're also miles removed from where they were as a franchise three years ago when they won their first Cup.
They have moved from rewarding a loyal fan base with a long-awaited championship to making good on a promise to be more than a one-shot wonder.
"It's changed drastically. I don't know if I like it better or not. I for sure don't like it better, actually," admitted defenseman Drew Doughty, who has emerged as a pre-series favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
He admitted the team's profile has increased dramatically.
"We'll go out for dinner -- the beards we all have don't help -- but back in the day we could just pretty much roll in anywhere, and there's no way anyone would know who you were, no possible way," Doughty said. "And now it seems like everywhere we do go, we are getting recognized. It's kind of more like Canada, when you're back in home in Canada. It's great because we're bringing more fans to the game, we're making hockey a presence in California. But that was kind of the bonus of playing here too -- you could do what you wanted and not get in trouble for it."
Speaking of Doughty, he is one of a large number of Kings players who are unflinchingly honest, whether it's in talking about their own personal level of play or where the team is at.
"I take it upon myself to make a difference in the game. Sometimes it goes backwards. Last game against the Blackhawks, I wasn't very good in the first period. I played a lot better after that, but I put maybe a little bit too much pressure on myself, tried to do too much on my own," Doughty acknowledged.
"My ultimate thing is just winning. That's all I care about, being a winner and helping this team win. I'll do anything it takes."
Not only are the Kings in a different place in their evolution now, but they're also in a different place in this series as the home team, the first time this spring, and a significant favorite to win this series.
"We're just not looking at it that way," said playoff scoring leader Anze Kopitar. "It doesn't matter to us. Obviously they're doing some really good things to be in this position. Both teams have done it but now it's about to take the next step and get it done."
Not far away, Justin Williams -- Mr. Game 7 -- who ran his record to 7-0 in Game 7s in Chicago, suggested there isn't much to separate the two teams regardless of how others might assess their respective chances.
"The Rangers have proven throughout these playoffs, as we have, that they're tough to put down," Williams said. "Teams don't make it here by chance. It's a tough grind. The Rangers have proven that they're battle-tested, and I know that their will to win is going to be big."
And maybe that's the great lesson from all of this as we head into Game 1 of the 2014 finals: This is where the road converges for that one simple thing -- the will to win.
The paths have been different, to be sure, but now these two teams and those two paths have become one: one path, one goal, one winner.
Bring it on.
2014 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
Sixteen teams began the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup, only two remain: