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Top Shelf: Rangers face superior competition in Cup Finals

<p>The New York Rangers barely had enough time to celebrate their first Eastern Conference title in 20 years when talk turned to their presumably slim chances in the Stanley Cup Finals.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Rangers barely had enough time to celebrate their first Eastern Conference title in 20 years when talk turned to their presumably slim chances in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Having eliminated the Montreal Canadiens in six games and earning the franchise's first spot in the Stanley Cup Finals since last winning it all in 1994, the Rangers are being given little chance to lift the Cup against either of their potential opponents from the West.

It's not as if anybody is saying the Rangers are not a really good team, but it is difficult to justify picking them to beat either the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings in the next round.

New York is a deep team at both ends of the ice and has considerable team speed, and it was the club's quickness that gave Montreal -- a good skating team in its own right -- fits in the conference finals.

The club also boasts one of the world's best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, but it's hard to get over how much better the West is than the East in this current NHL landscape.

Like most teams from the East, the Rangers struggled beating Western Conference teams on a consistent basis in 2013-14. New York had a 31-18-5 record within its conference during the regular season, but was just 14-13-1 when facing teams from the West. That means New York played at a 102-point pace over the course of 82 games against the East, but the number drops to 85 points if the Rangers only played teams from the opposing conference.

The contrast between New York's success against the East and its struggles versus the West is jarring, but it's not like the Rangers have zero chance to take down either the Blackhawks or Kings. Outside of Boston (and maybe Pittsburgh), the Rangers were always the East team with the best chance to win against the West in this year's Cup Finals. That's because under head coach Alain Vigneault, who led Vancouver to the Cup Finals in 2011, New York plays like a Western Conference team, using speed and puck possession to control the pace of the game.

It's also become clear Lundqvist is not only New York's best player, but perhaps the top goaltender in the East. Entering this postseason, the one thing Lundqvist was lacking was a signature playoff year and, regardless of what happens in the next round, he's already achieved that in 2014.

Show me a person who believes New York has a chance to beat Chicago or L.A., and I'll show you somebody who is betting big on Lundqvist. If the Rangers stand a chance to claim the franchise's fifth Stanley Cup title, it will be because of Lundqvist.

New York will likely face the Kings in the Cup Finals, assuming Chicago will be unable to overcome a 3-1 series deficit to beat L.A. The Kings have a second chance to end the series on Friday, or else the clubs will meet Sunday in Chicago for a decisive seventh game.

If the Blueshirts had to choose between the Blackhawks and Kings to be their opponent in the Cup Finals, it would probably pick Chicago for a few reasons. Although the Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions, New York would have a big advantage over them in net, where Lundqvist is clearly better than Chicago's Corey Crawford. L.A., meanwhile, not only can match the Rangers' skaters in terms of depth and speed, but Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick also is at least on equal footing with Lundqvist.

There also is a practical reason the Rangers should prefer facing the Blackhawks, and that's because a Chicago win would give New York a few extra days before the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. The final round will begin Wednesday in either Chicago or Los Angeles, leaving the winner of a potential Game 7 only two days of rest in between the third round and the Cup Finals.

To be clear: Saying New York deserves to be underdogs in the next round is not the same as declaring the club has no chance to beat the Blackhawks or Kings. It would not qualify as a Lake Placid-caliber "miracle" if the Rangers wind up as the last team standing, but it certainly would be a surprise.

Still, you won't find many people picking New York to pull off the upset, and for good reason. Like it or not, at this point the idea that the West is the stronger conference is not merely a narrative, it's pretty much a fact.

With the amount of luck involved in the NHL playoffs, it would be unwise to say the Rangers have no chance in the next round. Then again, it'd be smarter than picking New York to win.

HABS CAN HOLD HEADS HIGH

While New York is set to be heavy underdogs against its West opponents, the situation would be more out of hand had the Canadiens been the team coming out of the East.

That's not to say the Habs are a fluke, it's just Michel Therrien's young team arrived a little ahead of schedule this spring. That's an excellent sign for fans of Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge and their chances of making another deep postseason run sometime in the near future.

Already boasting excellent young players like goaltender Carey Price (26 years old), defenseman P.K. Subban (25) and forwards Max Pacioretty (25), Brendan Gallagher (22) and Alex Galchenyuk (20), the Canadiens unearthed another potential gem during the six-game series loss to New York. Dustin Tokarski was a virtual unknown when pressed into emergency goaltending duty following Price's injury in Game 1 of the East finals and proceeded to turn heads for his solid play throughout the rest of the series.

Sadly for Montreal, Tokarski's best performance was wasted on Thursday night when he stopped 31-of-32 shots in a 1-0 loss in Game 6. With his team's backs placed firmly against the wall, the 24-year-old postseason novice gave the Habs every chance to win a game New York had so thoroughly dominated.

Now, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is tasked with a tough decision this offseason. Does he sell high on Tokarski and leave Peter Budaj to resume his duties as Price's backup, or does he move forward with Tokarski as the No. 2 option and flip Budaj instead? My money is on the latter scenario, but you can bet Bergevin will at least entertain offers for Tokarski if they can improve his team.

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