GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Henrik Lundqvist had his game-day face on at practice. He still smiled and answered all the questions thrown at him about the Los Angeles Kings – the New York Rangers’ long-awaited opponent in the Stanley Cup finals.
“Exciting. Long flight,” the star goalie said before he and his teammates headed to California for New York’s first appearance in the finals since winning the title in 1994. “East Coast-West Coast. I’ll look forward to this matchup.”
If there wasn’t already enough pressure on Lundqvist to lead his team to the championship, he is now part of the hype machine heading into Game 1 tonight.
Headlines are screaming: “King Henrik vs. the Kings.”
“Clever,” he said with a slight laugh.
The Rangers have been waiting since Thursday to find out if they would face the 2012 Stanley Cup-winning Kings or the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in the finals.
They took two days off before returning to practice Sunday. Most of the players said they watched at least part of Los Angeles’ third road Game 7 win of this playoffs that night.
So practice Monday had a bit more focus for the Rangers as they knew exactly who their opponent would be in the Stanley Cup finals.
“Any team you play at this time of year is a good hockey team, especially a team that has kind of been around the playoffs and the Stanley Cup finals a couple of times in the last few years, (you focus more),” forward Derek Stepan said. “This is a very good hockey club. We have a tough challenge in front of us.”
The Kings returned to Los Angeles after their 5-4 come-from-behind overtime win at Chicago and took Monday off. They have played a record 21 playoffs games before the finals – one more than the Rangers, who eliminated the Montreal Canadiens in six games during the Eastern Conference finals.
Before this year, no team that played seven games in each of the first two rounds had reached the finals. Now, both clubs have done it. The Kings taking it a step further with a trio of seven-game series.
“When you knew you were playing L.A., the adrenaline started coming a little bit more,” Lundqvist said. “You’ve been thinking about this ever since you beat Montreal, but now knowing we’re going to L.A., it was easier to focus on what’s coming.
“You just try to now come back to the focus and mindset you had last week. It (has) been nice to get a little break here and get away from it a little bit because it (has) been that intense.”
The Rangers and Kings split two games during the regular season – with each team winning in the other club’s building – but they haven’t seen each other since Los Angeles’ 1-0 victory at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 17.
New York opened with a five-game Western road trip as final renovations were being made at the Garden. Its only win during that stretch was a 3-1 victory at Los Angeles on Oct. 7 – a 28-save performance by Lundqvist.
“Great goaltending. Great defense. Great forwards. Great special teams,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter provided as a quick scouting report on the Rangers. “We’re up against it again.”
The Rangers know that many, if not most, in the hockey world aren’t giving them much of a chance to win the Cup. They neither mind nor embrace the role of underdog.
They have heard it before and have just gone about their business.
“When you get into the NHL, you know how hard it is to win,” forward Brad Richards said. “The underdog thing and the favorite thing really doesn’t mean anything in the locker room. You have to go out and play.”
New York needed seven games to beat division rival Philadelphia in the first round. The Rangers weren’t expected to beat Pittsburgh from the start, and certainly not after they fell into a 3-1 series deficit.
Montreal was coming off a stirring seven-game victory against defending Eastern Conference champion Boston, so odds makers favored the Canadiens in their matchup against New York. But here the Rangers are as the last team standing.
“To put it quite simply, we’re up against the team that won the Stanley Cup two years ago that just beat the defending Stanley Cup champions, that without a doubt is battle-tested,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “We know exactly what we have to do. If we want to have a chance, we’re going to have to bring our best hockey of the year. It’s as simple as that. ... We’re going to be ready come (tonight).”
He added one more thing as he left the media interview tent while wearing his sandals, to go prepare for a cross-country flight.
“Bring your shorts,” he said.