NEW YORK – Do not operate while fatigued, the warning labels often say. But that is exactly what the host Los Angeles Kings might have to do when the Stanley Cup Final opens at Staples Center on Wednesday.
The Kings will be operating on two days of rest after beating the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals, a fast-paced, anxiety-drenched series that went to overtime of Game 7 after Game 5 went to double overtime.
The New York Rangers, in contrast, will have had five days to recover from eliminating the Montreal Canadiens in the East, a six-game series that was noticeably slower on the ice than the relentlessly intense battle between the Kings and the Blackhawks.
That would seem to give an advantage to the Rangers, but coach Alain Vigneault discounted it after his team practiced Monday and prepared to travel to Los Angeles later in the day.
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“They’ve played one more game than we did — they’ve played 21, we’ve played 20,” said Vigneault, referring to the overall postseason. “We’ve had a couple more days to recover from the demands of the schedule prior, but at the end of the day, I think that pretty much evens out.”
The oddsmakers, who have installed the Kings as favorites, seem to agree.
But the evidence suggests otherwise: Playing a lot of hard-fought playoff games in a short period can indeed slow a team down.
A case in point is what happened to the Rangers earlier this spring. Between Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round and Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second, they had to play five games in seven days — something no NHL team had done in 25 years, and a congested schedule Vigneault described as “stupid.”
So many high-pressure games in a short period, which included a tense Game 7 against the Flyers, had a short-term effect. By the end, the Rangers were exhausted, dropping the last two games of that sequence to the Penguins 3-0 and 2-0.
Ultimately, the Rangers survived. The Kings’ situation is not quite the same, but it is worth noting that under the playoff format adopted in 1987, L.A. has become the first team to reach the best-of-seven Final after playing three seven-game series.
And consider the Kings’ schedule since the Rangers last played Thursday.
They lost Game 6 in Los Angeles 4-3 Friday by giving up two goals in the last 8½ minutes. As dispiriting as that was, they won Game 7 in Chicago on Sunday night, a game in which they came from behind three times before winning on Alec Martinez’s overtime goal.
After playing both games at a breakneck pace, after winning all three of their Game 7s on the road, they traveled back to Los Angeles late Sunday for a breather.
Drew Doughty, the Kings’ top defenseman, played 55 minutes in Games 6 and 7 against the Blackhawks, a sizable number. Another top defenseman, Slava Voynov, played 47. The Kings, who are a bigger team than the Rangers, doled out 91 hits and were hit 63 times in return, imposing figures for two games. All that body-checking could take a toll on Los Angeles.