By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 14) — Start spreadin’ the news.
For the second consecutive spring, the New York Rangers will encounter a team from southern–California in their quest to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994 — and only the second time in 75 years. This spring, the Rangers will succeed. Twelve months after falling to relentless Justin Williams; opportunistic Alec Martinez and the Los Angeles Kings, the Rangers will hoist Lord Stanley’s mug in a battle between the first and third–place teams during the 2014–15 National Hockey League season. For only the third time since 2002–03, the Presidents’ Trophy winner will also become the NHL champion.
With their geographic nemesis up the road incapable of haunting them once again, Anaheim will put it together and appear in the Stanley Cup final for the third time — and first since defeating Ottawa to win the title in 2007. The Ducks were favored to beat Los Angeles in the Western Conference semifinals a year ago but were defeated at home in the first two games. When they returned the favor at Staples Center in Games 3 and 4 to even the series — and then won a third consecutive match at the Honda Center in Game 5 — it appeared the Kings would be eliminated. But, the eventual champs eked out a 2–1 victory at home before walloping the Ducks, 6–2, in the deciding match at Anaheim. Given that L.A. won all three Western rounds last spring on the road in Game 7, the Ducks may have encountered yet another emotional barrier. With the Kings on the outside, however, it is time for Bruce Boudreau to repeal his reputation as a coaching flop in the Stanley Cup tournament.
NEW YORK RANGERS WILL WIN THE STANLEY CUP THIS SPRING FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE MARK MESSIER, GLENN HEALY AND CO. TURNED THE TRICK 21 YEARS AGO.
The Rangers proved their mettle this season by hoarding wins and points during the eight–week–long absence of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who suffered a vascular injury when struck in the throat by a shot and did not play between Feb. 4 and Mar. 26. Back–up Cam Talbot likely earned some Hart Trophy votes by stepping in and leading New York to an 18–4–3 record in 25 games with Lundqvist on the shelf. As such, the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy (first–place overall in the NHL) with a mark of 53–22–7 for a franchise–record 113 points — three more than second–place Montreal and four more than third–place Anaheim. New York last won the Presidents’ Trophy in 1993–94 (with 112 points) and went on to defeat Vancouver in a thrilling, seven–game championship.
If New York wins the 2015 Stanley Cup, it will provide all pre–expansion NHL clubs with at least two titles since the Maple Leafs last appeared in the Cup final. In the post–1967 era, Montreal has 10 championships; Detroit four; Boston three; Chicago two and the Rangers one.
I look for New York to draw even with Chicago this spring.
As often happens, the eventual champion could encounter its stiffest competition early in the playoffs. The Rangers open up against Pittsburgh, having finished 13 points better than the Penguins this season. But, if goalie Marc–Andre Fleury holds it together in the opening round, New York may have to go the distance before advancing.
My Conference quarterfinal picks: (logos courtesy http://www.sportslogos.net/)
NEW YORK IN 6
MONTREAL IN 6
DETROIT IN 7
WASHINGTON IN 7
ANAHEIM IN 6
ST. LOUIS IN 7
CHICAGO IN 6
CALGARY IN 5
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