LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings are a mountain to climb, and the size of the challenge comes home the closer you get.
The New York Rangers finally had a first-hand look in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, mounting an early assault before Los Angeles knocked them back to win 3-2 in overtime.
Asked to compare the physicality of the well-drilled Kings to the three teams the Rangers have beaten in the playoffs to date, New York coach Alain Vigneault neatly summed up the challenge before the Blueshirts.
“Philly was a physical team and they played on the edge,” he said. “Pittsburgh played more of a skill game, but they also had quite a few players that played on the edge. Montreal was a real structured team. So they were three different opponents.
“This one here is structured. They’ve got skill. They’re physical. So makes it a pretty big challenge.”
You can add battle-hardened to that list. In the dog-eat-dog Western Conference, the Kings have come to the final the long way. They have had to run the gauntlet of San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago — teams that finished 15, 20 and 11 points, respectively, ahead of New York in the regular season. And they did it without home-ice advantage.
“We’re a team that’s just never going to go away,” said Los Angeles forward Kyle Clifford. “Doesn’t matter what the score is, we’re going to play our hardest and do what we do best.”
The Kings, who clawed their way back to dominate the second half of Wednesday’s game, have already given the Rangers plenty to chew on.
The New Yorkers, nestled in a five-star cubbyhole on the beach, had the day off Thursday to ponder the challenge.
“To be able to be away from the game is a good thing, but at the same time I think if you ask every guy on our team, where we’re at mentally right now is we’re at the rink still,” said forward Derek Stepan. “Guys are evaluating their own games, getting ready to make adjustments and get ourselves ready for Game 2.”
That comes Saturday, and Vigneault wasted little time challenging his players to up their game this time.
“One thing is real evident to me, and it should be to our whole group, is we’re not going to beat this team if we do not all bring our A game,” Vigneault said. “It is that strong of an opponent that we’re playing against.
“We had Hank (goalie Henrik Lundqvist) that brought his A game last night. We had a couple guys. I don’t want to name who, I think brought their A game. But our B game won’t do it. We’re not going to win if we bring our B game to the table.
“They’re one of the best teams I’ve seen in a long time. Areas to exploit, they don’t jump out at you. We’re going to have to be better than we were.”
Unlike in the Eastern Conference final series against Montreal, where Vigneault and Habs coach Michel Therrien poked and prodded each other verbally, Vigneault has been all business so far in the final.
He seems to be staring at the Kings, like a career bank robber pondering how to take down a state-of-the-art safe.
The Rangers coach says his team knew going into the series what was needed to win.
“It’s something that we discussed — how good the opponent was. And that’s a challenge. At this time of the year to win, you got to bring your A game. That’s each and every player. When we played Game 6 against Montreal, each and every player brought his A game. It’s not an easy thing to do. But against this opponent, I do believe our expectations are to win, (we’ve) got to find a way to do it.”
Vigneault is no strangers to the challenge, having crossed paths with the Kings many times during his years as coach of the Canucks.
“They were a good team in the years past,” he said. “They’re a real good team now. They’ve obviously got more experience. They play their game plan to a T and they don’t deviate in any shape, way, or form so that makes it real challenging for the opposition.”
Captain Dustin Brown says part of the secret of the Kings’ success is their familiarity.
“For our team, it’s just a result of us being together for a long time. I think that goes a longer ways than most people think,” he said. “When it gets really hard, really tough, you know the guy next to you very well. You know what he’s going to do in those types of situations.”
Worrying for the Rangers is the fact the Kings, who fell behind 2-0 in the first period only to rally and outshoot New York 20-3 in the third, can be better.
Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter acknowledged his team was sluggish following the quick turnaround from the gruelling series with Chicago.
“Guys are not machines,” he told a media availability at a hotel adjacent to their practice facility.
“We can play a lot better,” he added. “It’s way better when you’re not chasing the lead.”
Sutter did his bit to inject some life into his team, changing up the lines in the first period as soon as he saw some players did not have their legs under them.
The Kings also had an off-day Thursday.