As if by magic, the Los Angeles Kings have a 2-0 game lead on the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals — all without holding a lead in regulation.
It’s a dominating spot to be in: According to WhoWins, when the higher seed takes a 2-0 series lead in the Cup finals they have gone on to hoist the Stanley Cup 91.7 percent of the time. Winning Game 3 for a 3-0 lead boosts that even further — only one team, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit to win the Stanley Cup finals.
The key for Los Angeles will be how Coach Daryl Sutter matches his lines on the road. Specifically, Anze Kopitar.
Kopitar is a finalist for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defensive forward. He logged the most shorthanded time (164:53) among the league’s top 30 scorers, won 53.3 percent of his 1,451 face-offs and helped outshoot oppponents 733-490 skating even strength during the regular season.
During Game 1 of the finals, Kopitar was matched up primarily against Derek Stepan, Chris Krieder and Rick Nash. And it worked.
Kopitar was not on the ice for an even-strength shot on goal against the whole night, but helped the Kings generate nine of their own.
During Game 2, Kopitar’s shifts would overlap even more with the Ranger’s top line, but the results would not be as extreme.
The Rangers would manage 13 even-strength shots on net and a goal against with Kopitar on the ice, a wrister by Mats Zuccarello late in the first period.
“We all roll lines, but I think you have to try to make sure who is on the ice in certain situations. You have centermen, you have defenseman. It’s a challenge,” Sutter said. “You’re not going to play a series without playing games on the road.”
With Game 3 at Madison Square Garden, Rangers Coach Alain Vinegault will have last change, meaning he will have a better time dictating the matchups of his squad during stoppages of play. Or will he?
During Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, Sutter still managed to get Kopitar on the ice for 77 percent of the shifts logged by Johnathan Toews, Chicago’s top center. In Games 1, 2 and 5, all at the United Center in Chicago, those numbers were 88 percent, 68 percent and 86 percent, respectively. The Kings would outshoot Chicago 27-19 during even strength in those games with Kopitar on the ice. Los Angeles would lose two of the three but continue on in the playoffs.
It is clear Sutter has no problem getting the matchup he wants for Kopitar either at home or on the road, which means Vinegault will have to exploit another part of the Kings’ roster for secondary scoring — either from Zuccarello’s line or from Brian Boyle on the fourth line.
Zuccarello’s line matching up against more frequently against the defensive pair of Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov offers promise. Ignoring special teams and lead-protecting situations, the Kings have been outshot 134-110 with Voynov on the ice this postseason while Mitchell is slightly more respectable at 83-83 despite facing softer competition. That could help keep the Zuccarello/Derick Brassard/Benoit Pouliot line, which leads the team with 19 even-strength points this postseason, firing on all cylinders.