LOS ANGELES - This might be the biggest marquee series in professional sports in 30 years, but the Los Angeles Kings made sure the New York Rangers know who gets top billing.
It’s the Stanley Cup final, starring the Kings, with special guest appearances by the Eastern Conference champions.
At least in Game 1.
On a night that started well and ended in ruin, the Rangers discovered Wednesday that everything they’d heard about the Kings is true.
They’re big, tough, fast and they don’t stop coming. Ever.
And if the final 20 minutes of regulation in Game 1 were any indication, everything everyone feared about the Rangers’ inability to make a series out of this might also be true.
The gulf between the two teams, razor thin in the first 40 minutes of a 2-2 game, seemed a mile wide when the Kings found their footing in the third period, outshooting the Rangers 20-3.
Thanks to Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist the rampage yielded nothing but frustration and overtime – where L.A.’s Justin Williams scored at 4:36 to post a 3-2 victory and draw first blood in the series – but the Kings served notice that when they get rolling they can’t be stopped.
At least the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks couldn’t, and the Rangers, if they intend to knock this jugggernaut off the rails, will have to bring more to the fight than they did in Game 1.
The Kings looked slow and disjointed at times, leading many to wonder if 72 hours wasn’t enough time for them to recharge, physically and mentally, after their seven-game, cross-country battle royal with the Blackhawks.
If that’s true, the Rangers just blew their best chance to get a head start on the series. Both teams get a two-day rest before Game 2 on Saturday.
The Kings were expected to use this stage to thoroughly illustrate the difference between the best team in the Western Conference and the best team in the East. Instead, it was the Rangers who stormed in front, stunning the Staples Center crowd, not the mention the Kings, by taking a 2-0 first-period lead.
New York opened with pressure right off the opening faceoff and could have scored very early, but Jonathan Quick kept them off the board until 13:21, when Drew Doughty turned a puck over at the New York blueline and Benoit Pouliot scored on the ensuing breakaway.
The jaws in California dropped even lower 1:40 later when Carl Hagelin scored shorthanded to make it 2-0 Rangers.
These are the Kings, however, and they stopped the bleeding very quickly, cutting the lead to 2-1 on Kyle Clifford’s first of the playoffs at 17:33.
Doughty tied it up 6:36 into the second period, just by being Drew Doughty. He made a couple of electrifying moves at top speed, put one through Henrik Lundqvist and it was all square after 40 minutes.
The Kings broke out in the third period, outshooting the Rangers 13-0 through 10 minutes. But it remained 2-2 thanks to the work of Lundqvist, who the Kings are discovering to be a much stiffer test than Chicago’s Corey Crawford.
That New York and Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup final represents the most far-reaching league championship in any sport since 1981 when the Dodgers and Yankees met isn’t lost on the players.
They understand what this dream series means to the NHL.
“I think it’s important for the league,” said Rangers centre Brad Richards. “These match-ups are great for the game, we understand that. You want (the league) to be in good shape.
“I’ve been through two lockouts where you wonder, but when you see this today, and the series leading up to it, it’s great for hockey and that’s all we really care about.”