The final series in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs begins tonight (June 4), and it’ll be a shame if it doesn’t result in a whole new crop of hockey fans. The Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers are both fun to watch and have fought their way tooth and nail into the finals, bringing some excellent baggage with them — namely, intrigue and chips on shoulders. Hockey fans already know the story lines leading up to the game, but they’re worth repeating to those who’ve not yet realized that playoff hockey is one of the greatest sports to watch, on television or in person.
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Hockey’s playoffs blend the in-game intensity of the NFL’s single-game playoffs with the attrition of a baseball best of seven. The sport has everything anyone with an inkling of sports passion in their blood needs. It’s fast paced. It’s angry and hard-hitting. It’s tactical. But it’s also influenced by luck: a bouncing puck or the tiniest of deflections off a wildly thrashing forest of sticks, legs, skates and bodies can decide a tight game. It’s chaos expertly controlled on the razor edge of a skate and the flat end of a stick.
The two final teams have endured winding, torturous postseasons. The Kings, who were only sixth best in the West coming into the playoffs, have used their player depth and a surprisingly potent offense led by (former Ranger) Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar to overwhelm opposing teams with goal scoring. Even so, they’ve needed all seven games in each of the first three rounds to defeat their opponents. The Rangers, meanwhile, needed seven games to beat the Philadelphia Flyers, stole a series from the seemingly unstoppable Pittsburgh Penguins, and then made decently quick work of Montreal thanks to a stifling defense and penalty kill (defending against another team’s one-man advantage after a penalty) that’s been supplemented by great play from returning forward Chris Kreider and the electric veteran Martin St. Louis. In short, both teams have earned their place in the finals, and so have their fans, who are probably stocking up on blood pressure medication as we speak.
Blocker: The rectangular pad a goalie wears on the hand that holds his stick.
Five-Hole: The gap between a goaltender’s legs.
Paddle: The wide portion of a goalie’s stick above the blade.
Rebound: When the puck bounces off a goalie, the net or another player after a shot on net.
Shortside: The side of the goal closest to the shooter.
Slot: Area of the ice directly in front of the goalie, between the face-off circles.
Standing On One’s Head: When a goalie makes ridiculous saves to help his team win even though they haven’t played well.
Top Shelf: The top area of a goal between the goalie’s shoulders and the top crossbar.
But the real story of this finals is the goalies. Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and Jonathan Quick of the Kings are regarded as potentially the two best goaltenders in the league, and how they play could very well make the difference in this series. They both have impressive save percentages in the playoffs, overall — in fact, they’ve saved an identical 92.2 percent of shots — but they play very differently: Quick is aggressive and unhesitatingly coming out of the net, Lundqvist waits out shooters from deep inside his goal crease. In this year’s playoffs Lundqvist has been far better, making saves like this one with a consistency that makes him seem superhuman and recording a save percentage of .928. Quick hasn’t been as good with a save percentage of .906, but he’s recovered from bad play against the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs, and that play will likely continue in this series.
And unlike the rest of the sport, which can be a little confusing (offsides operates somewhat like soccer, but with an unmoving marker at each “blue line”, “icing” is illegal and probably not what you think it is, and shift changes are a dizzying affair that you might miss altogether), watching goalies doesn’t require any technical knowledge. It’s just men in big pads trying make themselves brick walls against a barrage of expertly placed shots. Grab a beer, grab a friend, and start there. Odds are you’ll find the rest pretty riveting, too.