By Jay Young
Earning the right to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup is the reward that sits at end of the most difficult journey in professional sports. It is the final prize for hockey's ultimate war of attrition.
Members of the Los Angeles Kings celebrate Justin Williams’ goal as New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist skates off the ice in Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final.
The team that wants to lay claim to the NHL's storied championship must do so trudging through a protracted regular season of 82 games before claiming four best-of-seven series in the postseason.
To say this is a daunting task would be an understatement. The playoffs are an exhilarating, but deadly, road, one lined with storybook comebacks, gruesome injuries, epic collapses, and pure bold-faced luck.
Every year great teams falter, surprises abound, and a champion is crowned.
This season we know one of two things: either the gritty New York Rangers will claim their first Stanley Cup since Mark Messier's historic win in 1993-94, or the determined Los Angeles Kings will return to their winning ways from 2012.
Both teams serve as perfect examples of what it takes to make it this far, but of course only one will end the season sipping champagne from the NHL's trophy.
Interestingly, neither team ended the regular season with the dominant records that we usually see from champions in the NFL or NBA.
While the Rangers ended their year in second place in the Metropolitan Division behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, no one was tapping them as favorites to come out of the East.
Those predictions fell upon the fearsome Boston Bruins, stacked Penguins and well-balanced Montreal Canadiens.
On the other hand, the Kings' journey back to the finals has been even more unforeseen, considering LA began the year in the newly formed Pacific Division with a pair of offensive juggernauts - the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.
That was in addition to the fact that the Western Conference was dominated throughout the regular season by the perennially scary Chicago Blackhawks, frightfully speedy Colorado Avalanche and dangerously talented St. Louis Blues.
Now all those teams have faded away to leave us with a puzzling question: Who will take home this year's Stanley Cup?
If we want to try and answer that question we have to examine the corpses of the teams already spat out by the meat grinder that is the playoffs.
Take, for example the San Jose Sharks, who you may remember carried what looked like a tightly latched 3-0 lead over the Kings in the first round. Loaded with offensive talent and hungry to advance in the playoffs, the Sharks once again turned in their jerseys early and dropped four straight games to lose the series.
What does this tell us?
Amnesia is one of the biggest keys to winning the Cup, and the Kings have the worst memories in the league. Not only did the 2012 champs roll past the Sharks after digging themselves a hole, they blew their two-game lead in the second round against the Ducks before roaring back in the final two games to advance. The third round against Chicago was the same story.
The Kings moved past the defending champions after having a chance to finish the series in game four and losing that contest in double overtime. They then somehow pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the Madhouse on Madison during an amazing Game 7 and clinched a bid to the finals.
Even if the Rangers manage to take Game 2 at home and win Game 3, it's not going to matter to the Kings. They play every night without any baggage like it's the first game of the year, not the last.
Amnesia wins games and so does picking up clutch players in free agency, which could turn out to be the difference in this year's series.
Entering the playoffs the St. Louis Blues added hometown hero Ryan Miller, while fellow Sabre Thomas Vanek was shipped off to another team in playoff contention - the Canadiens.
Both franchises thought that they had landed the golden ticket to the playoffs, but both turned out to be wrong. Miller proved ineffective against the high-paced West Coast offense of the Blackhawks while Vanek confirmed what everyone in Buffalo already knew-he's a talented player, but not a team player and certainly not a leader.
The same could be said for Marian Gaborik, who was booted from the Rangers to Columbus and then again to Los Angeles three months ago after not living up to his contract.
But right now it looks like the Slovakian forward is returning to his old ways, as he leads the playoffs in goals with 12 and has a chance to stick it to his former team.
While the Kings took a slight chance on Gaborik with the hope of improving their offense, the Rangers had a different strategy when entering the playoffs.
They decided that experience would pay dividends and signed aging Tampa Bay Lighting captain Martin St. Louis, hoping that the 38-year-old former Stanley Cup champion would bring with him the inspiration for another title.
So far both deals look to be working out, with Gaborik scoring at will and St. Louis providing an emotional boost to the Rangers while playing in the wake of his mother's death.
But the Rangers have been ahead of the Kings when it comes to signing difference makers. That's why over the past few seasons they grabbed All-Star Rick Nash from Columbus and proven leader Brad Richards from Dallas.
Guys like Nash, Richards, and St. Louis have the character that brings cups; Gaborik and Vanek do not.
But, as strange as it sounds, all of that may not matter. On paper, the Rangers look like a perfect fit to be this year's champions, but I just don't see it.
Wednesday night in Game 1 Ranger's goaltender Henrik Lundqvist made 43 saves to just 27 for Jonathan Quick, and still lost the game. Three of the last four Stanley Cups have been claimed by West Coast teams, all of which won due to potent offense.
For that reason I give the edge to the Kings. Amnesia has already proven to be an invaluable trait this postseason. Teams have blown series leads and 2-0 game leads this postseason like they were playing in a late-night beer league.
The Kings haven't panicked yet, but neither has King Henrik.