EL SEGUNDO – For the city folk among us, gumboots look like cowboys boots, but they’re made for rainy and muddy weather. Hunters and outdoors-folk wear them. They’re not standard hockey gear.
Yet that’s how defenseman Willie Mitchell said he felt for much of Wednesday’s game, as though his skates had been replaced by the gumboots he wears by the lake. The Kings beat the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, in the NHL version of tortoise vs. hare. The Kings would like to get moving in Game 2.
A slow start – not atypical – put the Kings in a 2-0 first-period hole. They rallied from it (for the fourth time in these playoffs), won in overtime, and afterward attributed their sluggishness to mental and physical fatigue.
“Guys are not machines,” Coach Darryl Sutter said Thursday. “It was an emotional (Western Conference final) series against Chicago, seven games. It was tough.”
If that’s all it was, the Kings should be OK. They didn’t practice Thursday, and other than a brief session Friday, they’ll get another day of rest before Saturday’s Game 2.
But what if it’s not just about recuperating?
The Rangers have the smallest, speediest group of forwards of the four teams the Kings have faced in the playoffs. They’re not only fast through the neutral zone but they’re quick to pounce on loose pucks in all three zones. Make a mistake, and the Rangers will have the puck moving in an odd-man rush in a hurry.
It’s possible that the Rangers’ style might pose a series-long problem with the bigger, more physical Kings.
“Our speed definitely helped us in terms of creating good chances,” Rangers winger Carl Hagelin said. “We just need to continue doing that throughout the series. It's hard to beat (the Kings). They’re all pretty steady defensively. You have to make sure you get behind them and hopefully win races.”
As the Rangers show, speed isn’t simply about getting from one end of the ice to the other in a hurry. It’s about hustling to forecheck and recover pucks, and it’s an area the Rangers might be able to exploit.
Kings GM Dean Lombardi purposely built a team that is heavy and can wear down the opposition over three periods. That’s what happened in Game 1. The Kings rope-a-doped their way through two periods, managed a 2-2 tie, then outshot the Rangers, 22-4, in the third period and the five minutes of overtime.
That’s risky, though. If not for goalie Jonathan Quick, the Kings easily could have trailed by a couple goals going into the third period. In Game 2 and beyond, they will have to better manage the Rangers’ quickness.
“We need to manage the puck a lot better than we did,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “I think that can eliminate some of the threat of their speed. They're still going to have pockets and space to do it throughout the game. But where we can limit them is through the neutral zone, forcing them to dump the puck in more.”
Is it possible? Two Kings defensemen, Mitchell and Matt Greene, are not fleet afoot. Slava Voynov is, but he had a rough Game 1 and got lost in defensive-zone coverage a number of times.
The Kings, early on, faced regular pressure when the Rangers controlled the puck behind the net. New York tried to attack Quick from odd angles and use their speed to get to the front of the net.
One answer for the Kings is to get their own forecheck game going, to hit the Rangers before they can event get the puck moving through the neutral zone. That requires energy, and the Kings seemed to find more of it late in Game 1, or at least the determination to grit through their fatigue.
That’s what center Anze Kopitar did, as he recorded four shots on goal in the game’s final 25 minutes.
“The guys just really showed the character to battle through no matter what: slow legs, sloppy play, (the Rangers’) good start,” Kopitar said. “What counts is, we got the win and now we’ve got to look ahead again.”
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