Teams of Destiny

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Stanley Cup Final Preview

By Greg Hudson
 
The 2014 Stanley Cup Final begins Wednesday night at the Staples Center, and it looks set to be the start of a Finals series for the ages.
 
It’s admittedly an unlikely matchup, but the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings proved they deserve to be here with impressive performances in their playoff runs. The Rangers stared elimination in the face against the Pittsburgh Penguins after falling behind the perennial giants 3-1 in the best-of-seven conference semifinal. But they rallied behind netminder Henrik Lundqvist and hero Martin St. Louis, who led the team to victory after the tragic loss of his mother. Their mettle was tested again by the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final, but triumphed in six games to return to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since they won it last, in 1994.
 
The Los Angeles Kings, meanwhile, have dealt with even tougher odds. Down 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks, the Kings rallied to pull off a rare comeback and won the series 4-3 with a 5-1 road win in game seven. After racing to a 2-0 lead against the Anaheim Ducks in the conference semis, they dropped three straight and once again stared elimination in the face. Needing two wins to avoid an early exit, they again came together as a team to force game seven in Anaheim, and won the series with a convincing 6-2 victory. The 2012 champions then faced the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in a rematch of the 2013 Western Conference final. After gaining a 3-1 series lead the Kings struggled to close out the series, allowing the Blackhawks to claim games five and six after trailing in the third period of both games. In yet another game seven on the road, the Kings trailed 2-0, 3-2, and 4-3, but despite not holding a lead for a single second of the game, found a tying goal, and an overtime winner from unlikely source Alec Martinez.
 
Heading into the Finals, there’s no doubting the quality in either team. The Rangers’ defense is almost impenetrable, thanks in no small part to the presence of Lundqvist in net. But the Rangers’ defensive record is truly a team effort. They blocked well over 100 shots in the conference semifinals against Pittsburgh, and made a great team effort on the penalty kill in the conference final to stave off a dangerous Montreal powerplay.
 
But they’ll have their hands full with the Kings’ offense, a juggernaut of goals that is averaging 3.48 goals per game in the postseason, and has found goals from almost everyone on the team, from stars Anze Kopitar and ex-Ranger Marian Gaborik, to youngsters Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, and defensemen Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, and Martinez. They’ve found a way to put the puck in the net all postseason, and it will be a big test for the Rangers to keep it a low-scoring affair.
 
In a high-scoring contest, it’s advantage Kings, seeing as the Rangers offense has been hot-and-cold all postseason. But so have Jonathan Quick and the Kings’ defense, which has allowed four or more goals on six occasions in 21 postseason games. If the Rangers’ persistence and timely attack can get the best of Jonathan Quick, the Stanley Cup could well end up in New York for the first time in 20 years.
 
Prediction: Kings in 5, Rangers in 6, or it goes 7 games and it’s anyone’s trophy.

Turning Points

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Kings, Rangers Benefit From Adversity
By Greg Hudson
 
When the final whistle blew on game three of the Western Conference quarterfinal, the Los Angeles Kings found themselves at the edge of a cliff. Trailing the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in the best-of-seven series, the Kings were a loss away from an early exit to the Stanley Cup playoffs, and faced with an obstacle only four teams had ever done before: overturn a 3-0 defecit to win a playoff series.
 
But while almost everyone thought the Kings were down and out, the Kings fought back against San Jose, forced a seventh game, and won comfortably on the road 5-1. They carried their momentum into the conference semis against the Anaheim Ducks and raced out to a 2-0 series lead, but just as suddenly as they found their form, they lost it, and dropped three straight to trail 3-2 and find themselves once again in a win-or-go-home scenario. But they rallied in front of their home crowd at the Staples Center to win game six, and coasted to a 6-2 win in game seven across town.
 
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers also overcame a seven-game first round challenge from Philadelphia to face the Pittsburgh Penguins. After a solid performance in a game one win, they dropped three straight in woeful fashion, proving inept at almost every element at the game, with the exception of stalwart goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
 
But after the game four loss at Madison Square Garden which put them behind 3-1 in the series, while the Rangers got ready to travel to Pittsburgh for a do-or-die game five, Rangers star Martin St. Louis’s mother passed away suddenly. and few expected St. Louis to dress for game five.
 
Not only did he dress, he came out and led the Rangers to a resounding 5-1 win en route to a remarkable comeback that culminated in a 2-1 win in Pittsburgh in game seven to advance to the Conference Final against the Montreal Canadiens.
 
After so much adversity in the first two rounds, the Rangers and Kings have responded, even thrived on adversity. When everyone else counted them out, they counted on each other and found a belief in themselves and their team. Both teams now hold an advantage in their Conference Final series, despite not having home ice advantage. Each team is posed to become the first team to reach the Stanley Cup Finals after playing 14 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
 
And each team believes it will get there, but only one team can lift the Stanley Cup, and neither team has sealed its place in the finals just yet. Whether or not they have what it takes to reach the finish line remains to be seen, but if recent form is any suggestion, the Rangers and Kings could make for one sensational Stanley Cup Final.

Separating the Men From the Boys

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By Greg Hudson
 
As the Conference Finals roll around, it’s crunch time. It’s the business end of the playoffs and it’s the time when the players with the goods to deliver need to take the driver’s seat.
 
Insert another dozen cliches and you’ll sound just like the average New York sports fan who couldn’t name the Rangers’ second line but is a diehard Blueshirts fan come playoff season, dusting off the old Messier shirt to watch his team take on the challenge of a race for the Stanley Cup.
 
Cliches are common – perhaps too common – but the reason for their over-use is the fact that there’s truth to their meaning. While it isn’t quite time for “champions being made, not born,” it IS time to separate the men from the boys.
 
Eastern Conference – Montreal Canadiens v. New York Rangers
 
There are a lot of good men in this matchup. Habs boast the hardest-shooting man left in the playoffs in P.K. Subban, and perhaps the most under-rated goaltender in the National Hockey League: Carey Price. Max Pacioretty has come up big in tight games and scored pivotal goals this post-season, and the hard-hitting duo of Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais have helped lead a devastating forecheck that even the tight-run Bruins defense couldn’t cope with.
 
But with all those strengths, the Rangers have a definitive edge in this series. And while a fair portion of that edge is due to the blinding form from tender Henrik Lundqvist, the real key to the Rangers’ edge is their belief. They have real he-men buried in the lineup, from the courage of Martin St. Louis carrying on after the sudden passing of his mother, to the physical toughness and work ethic of Carl Hagelin, to the determination of Rick Nash to find ways to contribute even when he wasn’t putting the biscuit in the basket. The Rangers put themselves against the wall against Pittsburgh but their rally has given them a surge of belief, and it’s visible watching them play.
 
The men: New York Rangers
The boys: Montreal Canadiens
 
Western Conference – Chicago Blackhawks v. Los Angeles Kings
 
When you look at this matchup it’s easy to understand why many hockey analysts believe that the winner of this series will hoist the Stanley Cup. These two teams have won three of the last four Cups, and it’s clear why. Chicago has perhaps the single best lineup in the National Hockey League, while the Kings bring an irresistible style and quality that even the best of teams can’t cope with.
 
Chicago is a team stacked with talent. They play hard, they play rough, they play tough, and they make you play their game if you want to beat them. They’re a team full of men, and the boys in the team quickly learn the way. They go into the Conference Finals with an undefeated record at home in the postseason this year and with home ice advantage, it should give them an edge in the series.
 
But like the Minnesota Wild, the L.A. Kings have just the right mix of quality, speed, and creativity to really give the Blackhawks a run for their money. And perhaps most importantly in this series, unlike Minnesota, the Kings don’t consider the Blackhawks a superior team. They aren’t afraid of falling behind in the series, or of having to win on the road. Both the Kings’ first two rounds went to game seven, and the Kings won both of those games away from home. But the real reason you can’t count the Kings out (no, it isn’t just Jonathon Quick, although he’ll be very important) is the fact that they play well under pressure. This postseason the Kings have played six win-or-go-home games, and won all of them, by mostly comfortable margins. If the Blackhawks don’t bring their A-Game for all 60 minutes of every game in this series, they won’t play for a chance to defend the Cup. That being said, if they do bring the A-Game, it will take a Jonathon Quick miracle to keep the tribe out of the Cup Finals.
 
The men: Los Angeles Kings
The boys: Chicago Blackhawks

Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Drama

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By Greg Hudson

The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been some of the most hard-fought series’ in recent memory, and three of the eight first-round matchups head to a 7th game, to be played Wednesday night. Let’s take a look at each matchup and predict a winner.
Rangers/Flyers
These two teams are the epitome of the multi-sport, across-the-board rivalry between New York and Philly. Both teams and both sets of fans absolutely despise the other side, and this carries into baseball, football, and if men’s beach volleyball had teams there, you know their fans would hate the other team too.
But this series has been full of more than cheap shots and power plays. It’s been a series of two good teams hungry for a chance at Cup glory, and just as in the regular season, the Rangers and Flyers have traded wins, the Rangers winning games one, three, and five, and the Flyers taking games two, four, and six.
The difference-maker in this series has been the replacement of Ray Emery with Steve Mason in the Philly goal after game three. Since then the Flyers have won two of three games, having lost two of the first three games.
But both of those wins came on home ice, and game seven is at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers’ faithful will be full of noise and energy. Added to this, the Rangers have been here before, since their last two playoff series victories have been in game seven.
Prediction: Rangers win it 3-1 or 4-2.
Avalanche/Wild
Few would have predicted that a team with such low goal-scoring would last six games against the juggernaut Avalanche, but make no mistake: the Wild have more than held their own.
For me, as a neutral, this series has been the most fun to watch because the
games have been so close. Four of the six games played have been decided by a single goal, with three of those games ending in overtime.
The fact that the Avalanche have been pushed so hard by Minnesota seems to have rattled a few in the Colorado ranks, most notably their stalwart goaltender Semyon Varlomov, who has given up 3 or more goals in three of 6 games.
Meanwhile, the Wild came into this series taking nothing for granted, but also entirely unafraid of playing a team with better players. They’ve matched Colorado step for step in most major categories, and their composure has gotten them to an unlikely game seven. Composure in Denver tonight might well get them to the second round against Chicago.
Prediction: Wild win it, 4-3 in OT
Sharks/Kings
I’ll admit it. I went to bed after the first period in game two of this series having watched the Kings thorough outplay the Sharks en route to a 2-0 lead after the first 20 minutes, a brilliant response to their 6-3 thumping by San Jose the night before.
When I woke up and turned on Sports Center the next morning and saw the Kings didn’t score again and that the final score was 7-2 San Jose, I said to myself “That’s it, they’re finished.”
But the fact that they weren’t finished has been overshadowed by the fact that they are now the favorites to win it. The Sharks eased to a 2-0 lead in the series and then pushed the Kings to the brink of elimination with a 4-3 overtime win in game three, but that third loss seems to have sparked the Kings into life.
The L.A. boys have won the last three games, each by three goals: a 6-3 reversal of their game one defeat, a 3-0 shutout that has re-affirmed the Kings’ faith in stopper Jonathon Quick, who at times looked like an amateur in net in the first two games of the series, and a 4-1 game six win to send the series back up the coast to San Jose for game seven.
The pressure is now back on the Sharks, who looked to have this one in the bag and are desperately searching for answers in the hopes of keeping the Kings from becoming just the fifth team in the history of American sports to rally from 3-0 down to win a best-of-seven series.
Prediction: Kings take it 5-2.

 

 

2014 Preview: AL West

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By Greg Hudson

 
The 2013 season saw big changes in the AL West, namely the addition of the Houston Astros to the previously four-team division as part of the restructuring of the league. The newcomers had struggled mightily in their final seasons in the National League and that trend continued in their new division. Meanwhile, the perennial playoff contender Texas Rangers found new competition from the Oakland Athletics, while the star power of Albert Pujols in Los Angeles didn’t produce the desired results. Here’s how it looks for the 2014 season.
 
Houston Astros (51-111, 5th in 2013)
 
The Astros had a truly miserable season in 2013, and there’s little surprise to it. The 2005 World Series runners up have long lost or liquidated their best players and haven’t had the strength in the trade or free agent markets to assemble a team that can compete for anything other than last place. In 2013, Astros hitters ranked 29th in on base percentage at a lowly .299, with the team’s leading hitter Jose Altuve batting just .283. Coupled with a woeful pitching staff ranked dead last in team ERA and WHIP, the surprising stat is that they somehow managed to win 51 games.
 
But while the Astros haven’t added much quality or depth to their roster for this season, they can take heart in the progress of top prospects like pitcher Mark Appel, who could be facing major league hitters by the end of the 2015 season.
 
Los Angeles Angels (78-84, 3rd in 2013)
 
The 2013 hardly went according to script, as far as the Angels are concerned, as a team usually considered to be playoff-caliber failed to reach the .500 mark. But this failure isn’t the sign of a lack of quality, but rather a sign that the other teams in the division are improving, namely the Athletics. After all, the Angel’s have sluggers Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mike Trout as part of a lineup that ranked in the top five in batting average and on base percentage, along with a starting rotation featuring Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. But for all the offensive success, pitching remained a weak spot for the Angels in 2013, as the pitching staff ranked 24th in ERA with a 4.23, 26th in opponent batting average at .261, and 27th in WHIP with a 1.38.
 
New signings may help those numbers improve this season, with two new starters joining the rotation: Hector Santiago and youngster Tyler Skaggs, who impressed in limited appearances in Arizona. New setup artist Joe Smith will do his best to make life easier for closer Ernesto Frieri. The already solid lineup has also been padded with a potential .300 hitter in third baseman David Freese, while power hitter Raul Ibanez will likely fill the DH spot.
 
It’s tough to say whether they’ll be a playoff team this season, and it will likely depend on the reliability of the rotation, who certainly underperformed last season. If they can keep up with the likes of Texas and Oakland, they’ve certainly got the talent to make a run for October ball.
 
Oakland Athletics (96-66, 1st in 2013)
 
Oakland was the revelation team of 2013. Despite ranking only 14th in batting average, the A’s put up the fourth most runs in the league last year, thanks in no small part to timely hitting and the power of sluggers like Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Donaldson. A solid pitching rotation starring Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin ranked in the top 10 in most pitching departments, including the third best WHIP in the majors.
 
Considering the talent at play in Oakland, the A’s didn’t need to dip too deep into the market this off-season, but they did bolster their pitching staff with the addition of veteran starter Scott Kazmir, a move which may pay dividends. The bullpen also welcomes setup man Luke Gregerson and closer Jim Johnson. Look to see them throwing several times a week, all season, and well into October.
 
Seattle Mariners (71-91, 4th in 2013)
 
After a fairly anonymous season in 2013, the Mariners made a big move for the 2014 season, landing free agent Robinson Cano in a big-money move that has Seattle fans cheering and the rest of the country scratching its head and the length and value of the contract given to the ex-Yankee.
 
But the addition of Cano, along with DH Corey Hart and outfielder Logan Morrison, doesn’t make up all the ground between the Mariners and teams like the Rangers or Athletics. A poor performance from the pitching staff last season won’t necessarily be helped by the addition of two rookies to the starting rotation this season, despite the efforts of ace Felix Hernandez. And trusty new closer Fernando Rodney won’t have much work to do if his starters can’t give him a lead to work with.
 
They’ve still got some work to do, but things are looking up, at least.
 
Texas Rangers (91-72, 2nd in 2013)
 
The Rangers had their hearts broken by the Rays last season, but they’ve responded to the challenge of the playoff race by strengthening an already strong squad. Sure, the departures of David Murphy and Ian Kinsler hurt, but the addition of slugger Prince Fielder and hurler Tommy Hanson will only add quality to the fans in Arlington.
 
Yu Darvish will look to put his remaining doubters to shame this season, and there’s no doubt that new arrival Shin-Soo Choo will look to replicate his success in Cleveland and Cincinnati in the Lone Star state.
 
If they can play consistent baseball all season, then they stand a chance to take back the division crown from Oakland. But if they fail in that department, it’s likely that the road to the playoffs may again run through Tampa Bay.
 
Prediction:
 
1st: Athletics
2nd: Rangers
3rd: Angels
4th: Mariners
5th: Astros