The Stanley Cup is on the (Blue) Line

In no sport has the adage, “Defense wins championships” proven to be more true than in the NHL in recent years. The team allowing fewer regular season goals has won nine of the past 12 Stanley Cup Finals matchups, while the other three series went the full seven games. This is a bad omen for the New York Rangers, as the Los Angeles Kings led the league in goals allowed during this past regular season.

Since 1971, other than the offensive powerhouse teams from Pittsburgh (Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr) and Edmonton (Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier) in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, 14 Stanley Cup Finals have featured two teams with a regular season goals against discrepancy larger than that of the Kings’ advantage over the Rangers. In all 14 instances, the better defensive team had their names permanently etched into the Cup. Unfortunately for the Rangers this year, Wayne Gretzky isn’t walking through that proverbial door.

There is, however, some hope for New York from a defensive perspective. For starters, they have Henrik Lundvist, the kind of goalie who can single-handedly win a series for a team (see: virtually every post-season series the Rangers have won in recent memory). Perhaps more importantly is how the Rangers have played since New Year’s Day.

During the off-season, New York brought in Alain Vigneault to coach the team. He overhauled their defensive scheme, going from zone to man coverage. Their home arena, Madison Square Garden, was in the process of being renovated when the season began, forcing the team to open with a nine-game road trip. Needless to say, it took a while for the team to get acclimated to their new style of play and get their prolonged road trip behind them. Once they did, though, they were as good as anyone in the league.

As the ball dropped in Times Square to begin 2014, the NHL season was at its midpoint. At the time, the Rangers had the 19th best record in the league and were 13th in goals against average. Making the playoffs seemed possible; a trip to the Finals, not so much.

And then, everything clicked. Over the second half of the regular season, the Rangers led the NHL in goals allowed and had the third best record in the entire league. They have continued their success into the playoffs, reaching the Finals while holding their opponents to 22% fewer goals than their respective season averages.

Goals Against Average

Thru 12/31/13 After 12/31/13
1. Los Angeles 2.02 1. N.Y. Rangers 2.05
2. Boston 2.15 2. Los Angeles 2.22
3. Pittsburgh 2.29 3. Boston 2.28
4. Minnesota 2.31
13. N.Y. Rangers 2.66 5. San Jose 2.40

For the third time in four years, two of the top four teams in goals allowed will face each other in the Stanley Cup Finals. This will be the first time in league history, though, that neither team was among the top 10 in its respective conference in goals scored. Goals likely will be hard to come by, but that’s exactly how nearly every Stanley Cup winner since 1971 has liked it.

(photo by Michael Righi)

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