As the field of remaining teams challenging for The Stanley Cup continues to narrow, fans of the also-rans find themselves looking for somewhere to cast their support. This season's final four are increasingly looking like a final three (with the Phoenix Coyotes not-long for this world), neutral fans are faced with a three-way choice between the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings.
The Rangers and Devils are conspiring to play the least-exciting conference championship series in recent memory, with the games so far playing out as defensive grind-fests. When the New Jersey Devils, progenitors of the dreaded neutral-zone trap, are being referred to as the feisty and entertaining part of the matchup, you know you have a dud on your hands.
LA on the other hand, is playing a fast, dynamic and dominating style of hockey that is both physical yet sublime, losing only one of their first twelve games this post-season. Even with the LA sports spotlight being shared along with the NBA's LA Lakers and Clippers, the Kings have been embraced by the City of Angels in a way unseen since the Wayne Gretzky era.
All three of these teams are built around all-star caliber goaltending, but it's what they do in front of that goalie that marks the striking differences between them.
The New York Rangers play a collapsing defensive style that has seen a lot of recent press for the amount of shot-blocking it entails. By forcing the action to the perimeter, the Rangers are able to force their opponents into either low-percentage shot attempts, or thread-the-needle passes that often become turnovers. This makes for a rather dull, and at times frustrating spectator experience.
The New Jersey Devils use a hard forecheck to try to maintain possession in their opponent's zone and break them down. The physicality and tenacity with which they execute this system completely flummoxed the Philadelphia Flyers, their second round opponent. The New York Rangers on the other hand, are well suited to soaking up this kind of forechecking pressure without losing their positional discipline, giving the Devils lots of possession, but few real chances.
The Kings' defensive system applies more pressure on the puck carrier, with an eye towards creating turnovers. From there, the Kings look to hit other teams in transition. Anze Kopitar's sweet breakaway goal here is a perfect example. Neither Vancouver (The #1 seed), St. Louis (The #2 seed), or Phoenix (The #3 seed) have been able to solve the Kings' style of play this playoff season, and the Kings are poised to make history by going to the Stanley Cup Finals via the most difficult route possible (playing the highest possible seeded opponent in every round).
From a neutral fan's perspective, long outlet passes, odd-man rush opportunities, and breakaways are hockey at its most watchable. Purists can vouch for a technical, defensive chess match (especially when your own team is involved), but the masses? The masses want offense. And of the teams remaining in contention for the silverware, the Kings are the team most likely to deliver.