LOS ANGELES, Calif. – It’s taken the Kings 21 playoff games and the Rangers 20 to get to this Stanley Cup final. They have survived five Game 7s along the way.
But in truth, the journey started a lot longer ago.
The ride cost Los Angeles forward Jeff Carter his two front teeth. Ask him how it happened and he digs deep into the memory bank.
“Couple of separate incidents,” he said, flashing a smile with a gap that would accommodate a quarter. The back story gets a little fuzzy after that, although a puck to the mouth was involved.
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick changed allegiance on his road. He grew up a Rangers fan in Milford, Conn., and remembers watching Mike Richter and Mark Messier lead the Blueshirts to the ’94 Cup.
He recalls having a couple of friends over for Game 7. He was eight years old.
On Wednesday, Carter, Quick and the Kings go after their second Stanley Cup in three seasons with the underdog New York Rangers standing in their way. New York is back in the final for the first time in 20 years.
These teams are like two dogs fighting over one bone and refusing to stand down. One is four wins away from etching its place in hockey history.
Both practised at the Staples Center on Tuesday before holding court on media day.
Incisive questions aside—”Jeff, how do you feel?” Carter: “Great”—it was pretty much a mutual admiration society.
“We know that we’re up against great forwards, great defence and great goaltending, so it’s going to be tough,” said Rangers president and GM Glen Sather.
Added coach Alain Vigneault: “Our players got a real good idea of what’s coming up here as far as the challenge. We know they have balance on their four lines. (Drew) Doughty is probably one if not the best defenceman in the NHL, and they’ve got one of the best goaltenders (in Quick). We got our hands full and we’re ready for it.”
“You win three Games 7, you’re obviously doing something right,” offered defenceman Dan Girardi.
The Kings were also on their best behaviour.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Carter. “Obviously they’re here for a reason. They’re a great team.”
“They’re a great team,” echoed Quick. “You expect to play great teams at this time of year.”
There was also plenty of positive talk about their own squads.
Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi talked with pride about the togetherness of the Kings.
“You have 23 guys that stick together, never point fingers,” he said. “Quite frankly, there’s no way you’re going to get through what they got through if you didn’t have a group that cared about each other and cared about the right things. No chance.”
How close are the Kings? When they traded for sniper Marian Gaborik, Carter put him up in his house rather than see him in a hotel.
New York forward Derek Stepan, playing with a plate in his jaw thanks to a hit from Montreal’s Brandon Prust, points to how the Rangers have handled adversity.
“We’ve just rallied as a group and that says so much about our team—how we’ve all come together in all those situations.”
Both teams can roll four lines in front of a world-class goaltender.
Quick against Henrik Lundqvist should be a treat to watch, even in a post-season that has seen more than its share of crazy bounces.
“It’s been a pretty crazy playoff,” Carter said with a smile. “A lot of goals, a lot of weird bounces.
“I’m sure that everybody’s going to tighten it up here. There’s two great goalies going at it and a really good defence on both sides. It’s going to be tough to score goals.”
The two coaches are a study in calm, although the fire burns close to the surface for Kings coach Darryl Sutter, who can clench teeth with the best of them.
Both choose their words carefully, with Sutter as pithy as they come. His first answer of the day logged in at 18 words.
Defenceman Jake Muzzin says he isn’t much more talkative with the players.
“Not really. When he says something though, it’s important and you’ve got to listen. He’s good at getting his message across. He’s been honest. He gave me an opportunity to play in this league and he’s a great coach.”
In advance of Game 1, there was also humour.
Take Sather, when asked about what a GM does during the Cup final.
“It’s really complicated,” he said with a straight face. “Today it took us about three hours to figure out which golf course we were going to play on this afternoon, then later on this evening we have the question about dinner, what are you going to watch on TV tonight? Is ‘Game of Thrones’ on? It’s tough.”
Lombardi took a playful swipe at New York, noting he had worked in Philadelphia for three years.
“Part of the qualifications for that job was I had to learn to hate the Rangers in a hurry,” he said.
The hate is on for real Wednesday.
The teams played only twice this season with the Kings winning the last meeting 1-0 on Nov. 17 at Madison Square Garden, where since-traded goalie Ben Scrivens bested Lundqvist. New York won 3-1 in the Staples Center in its second game of the season.
With 100 points, Los Angeles finished four points ahead of the Rangers during the regular season.
The Kings are nearing the record for most playoff games in a season. The current mark is 26, set by the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers and 2004 Calgary Flames. The most games by a Cup winner is 25, by the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2011 Boston Bruins.