CHICAGO - Let's get to the news first: The Rangers are cooked.
It hardly mattered in that sense—but only in that sense—whether the Kings or Blackhawks won Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. The task falls to Los Angeles after a 5-4 overtime win Sunday night, but the truth is either would have thumped New York. The series that just ended was the real Stanley Cup finals.
The difference between the two best teams in the game, not coincidentally the NHL's last two champions, turned out to be about as wide as Blackhawks defenceman Nick Leddy's right shoulder. That's where the shot from the left point by Kings defenceman Alec Martinez struck first, a little less than six minutes into overtime, before the puck bounced up and traced a lazy arc over goaltender Corey Crawford's desperate attempt to readjust his glove hand on the fly. No surprise there.
Both of the Kings' previous playoff series—against San Jose and Anaheim—went to seven games, and they won both deciding games on the road. In all, they faced elimination seven times and won them all, too. They trailed three times in this one, by two goals early, in a building where Chicago had gone 7-1 throughout the post-season.
"We'd prefer not to get to Game 7," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "But when you're playing the defending champion, there's a good chance of it. As I said earlier, when it was 3-3 coming into tonight, it could have been the other way, the three wins and the three losses.
"We said if we won this game," he added a moment later, "it was going to be a great series. That was our mindset."
Sutter wasn't just being his usual deadpan self.
There hasn't been a playoff series any better than this one in hockey for a while, or in any other game for that matter. Two games went to overtime and the first of those, Game 5, featured a withering stretch of uninterrupted up-and-down play in the first overtime that lasted nearly eight minutes without a whistle. It took roughly 26 minutes to televise the 20 minutes of running clock time.
Contrast that to an NFL game, which takes just under three hours to televise on average, with about 11 minutes of live action and another 70 minutes of shots of the players standing around. Anyone who did that in this series was going to get scorched.
"Last year, they smacked us around—five games, but it could have been four and I think we were a better team this year and evenly matched," Kings centre Anze Kopitar said. "So I don't think it was revenge. ... The respect level on both sides is very high—not to say we don't respect anybody that we've beat in the past."
Turns out the Rangers and Kings split their only two meetings this season, but Los Angeles went 20-7-3 in their matches against the rest of the junior varsity, as plenty of hockey insiders dubbed the Eastern Conference, for a winning percentage of 70 per cent. The Blackhawks went 19-7-6 against the East (69 per cent), but it's not just at the top where the West is best. The rest of the Western Conference posted a slightly less-scintillating 55 per cent win total overall, averaging nearly a quarter of a goal more (2.74 vs. 2.52) per game.
Fans like to say you can throw out the numbers in a championship series, and they could be right. The Rangers have one of the best goaltenders on the planet in Henrik Lundqvist, but the Kings Jonathan Quick is in the conversation. The Rangers have a proven goal scorer in Martin St. Louis and some speed spread across three lines.
But it's not nearly enough to hold off the deep, fast, rugged, opportunistic Kings, even factoring in the wear-and-tear Los Angeles endured just to book a place in the final. And in fact, the Kings were so drained after Game 7 in Chicago that just thinking about the Rangers was a chore.
Asked what he remembered about their split with New York, Kings defenceman Drew Doughty drew a blank.
"Nothing," he said. "Sorry."
"I'll deal with that," Sutter said tersely, "tomorrow."
When the question came up again a few minutes later, he lapsed into coachspeak: "Great goaltending. Great defence. Great forwards. Great special teams."
"So no chance?" came a follow-up.
"I'd say it's against us," Sutter replied. No doubt the bookies in Las Vegas were thrilled to hear that. "We're up against it again."
Don't believe it. The one guy in the building Sunday night who knew as much tried to hold his tongue. He wasn't entirely successful.
"I'll let you guys sort that out," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I would have liked to have figured out how we matched up against them (the Rangers) ourselves."
But a moment later, Quenneville couldn't help but marvel.
"They find a way, LA. They're never out of a hockey game, out of a series. They're ..." he paused a final time, searching for the right word, "dangerous."
Exactly. Only this time, they won't need their usual quota of games to prove it.
Kings in six or less.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.