Improbable vs. unstoppable: How NHL got its dream Stanley Cup final

The New York Rangers will face the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday. It's a glamor showdown, but the team with all the tradition is also the big underdog.

New York Rangers right wing Martin St. Louis speaks during media day before Game 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup final against the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Within the cacophonous rhythms of American sports, the National Hockey League has always played the wild and somewhat dangerous cousin to its richer and more polished relatives in the nation’s “big three” sports, its players known for multiple broken noses and toothless grins – a shaggy-haired lot with “oat and a boat” accents from the frozen north.

But the sport of slashing sticks and blades will have a bigger stage on Wednesday night when the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings clash in the nation’s two most brightly-lit media markets, a West Coast/East Coast faceoff featuring Hollywood glitz and Broadway glamor.

But that just glides over the surface of this year’s battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The symmetry of these major-market teams is matched by a host of improbable storylines filled with unprecedented comebacks, team-galvanizing losses, and some of the fastest and toughest skaters in the world.

At first glance, the matchup appears to be one of those big-favorite-versus-heavy-underdog stories.

The Kings won the Cup two years ago, the Rangers 20 years ago. The indomitable Kings were just the fourth team in NHL history to win a best-of-7 series after losing the first three games, rallying from a 0-3 hole in the opening round against the San Jose Sharks. The feat has been accomplished only once in baseball history (by the 2004 Boston Red Sox over the New York Yankees) and never in the NBA.

Los Angeles also became the first team to win three consecutive seven-game series on the way to the finals. Not only that, they won all three Game 7s on the road – over three of the top teams in the league (the Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks, and the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks).

"Even though a lot of people aren't going to give us a chance, I like our chances," said first-year Rangers coach Alain Vigneault after Monday's practice in New York. “I like our group. I like our focus. I like the way we compete.”

But Rangers fans rarely embrace what Sports Illustrated called the “lovable underdog” role. True, they have won only a single Stanley Cup in the past 73 years. The image of Mark Messier, agape with ecstasy and shaking the cup in 1994, remains one of the most iconic sports moments in New York City history. But their hapless record is less Yankees and more Mets, less Giants and more Jets.

Yet as an Original Six franchise playing at Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan, the “Broadway Blueshirts” have always had a certain swagger, even when they stunk. Fans of their more famous arena-mates, basketball’s Knicks, are Spike Lee passionate but much more cynical, knowing a championship is not likely anytime soon.

In hockey, by contrast, anything is possible come playoff time. Just ask the Kings, who became the first eighth seed ever to win the Stanley Cup in 2012 – and the first eighth seed ever to win a championship in any major North American sport.

“I know L.A.’s been there before. I know they’ve won before,” said Vigneault. “I know they’ve gone to three Game 7s and won them, and they just beat the defending Stanley Cup champions. I get that…. But we’ve really rallied around ourselves and the opportunity” to play for the title.

Their rally began in poignant fashion before Game 5 of the second round, when the Rangers were at the brink of elimination, down three games to one to the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Sidney Crosby, one of the best players of his generation.

The night before, the Rangers’ Martin St. Louis, a former league MVP acquired before the trading deadline in March, lost his mother unexpectedly. He flew back to Montreal to be with his family, but he decided to play the next day. His team responded, thrashing the Penguins, 5-1.

Then, during Game 6, Mother’s Day, with the Garden crowd chanting his name from his opening shift, St. Louis scored the game’s first goal – his first point after six straight games without a goal or assist. The Rangers won, 3-1, then closed out the series, 2-1, during a Game 7 in Pittsburgh in which the gray beard had the assist on the game-winning goal.

St. Louis has scored in six straight games since his mother’s passing – four goals and three assists, including a sudden-death game-winner against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals. And his team has rallied around him.

“We flipped a switch,” Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello told Sports Illustrated. “I believe it was each guy saying, ‘Marty is here. What excuse do I have?’ I know he inspired me.”

But the Kings remain the favorites, an unexpected offensive juggernaut this postseason with 73 goals. The Rangers have scored 54 goals, playing one game fewer.

And though the Los Angeles defense has not been as dominant as usual during these playoffs, having given up the most goals, 60, they feature arguably the league’s top defenseman, Drew Doughty. Their goaltender, Jonathan Quick, won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2012, the award given each year to the Stanley Cup playoff MVP.

But the Rangers feature one of the world’s best goaltenders, Henrik Lundquist, who is known around New York as "The King." He has given up a measly two goals per game this postseason. And after the Rangers’ emotion-filled run, he has a sense of the moment.  

“We’re going to play against a really good team,” Lundquist said after shutting out the Montreal Canadiens to bring his team to the Stanley Cup Finals. “It’s about, for us in the room, to remind each other that this is such a special moment that you have to grab it.... You’re not going to get that many opportunities. I’ve been here for nine years. This is my first final, and now it’s all about preparing the right way and try to leave it all out there.”

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the day the NHL's Stanley Cup Final will begin in the summary.]

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