LOS ANGELES -- The Rangers' centers will be pivotal to their success in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final Saturday night, and probably beyond.
"They've got a real strong group down the middle," said coach Alain Vigneault, referring to Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll. "A lot of their plays start with faceoffs and the low plays through the neutral zone. Our guys need to manage the puck well; we manage the puck better and we're able to play a faster game, and that's been one of our strengths."
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In their 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1, the Kings won 29 of 57 faceoffs and their top four centers totaled 10 shots. The Rangers' top centermen -- Derek Stepan, Brad Richards, Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore -- had six. Carter and Richards set up goals with primary assists; the top four Rangers centers were pointless.
In the playoffs, the top three Rangers centers have 15 goals (five each for Stepan, Richards and Brassard) and 33 points. Kopitar, Carter and Richards have 16 goals and 56 points.
"They're good players," Brassard said Friday after practice at Staples Center. "Both Kopitar and Carter are big bodies. Stoll and Richards are good checking centers; they're good at both ends of the ice. But we tried to play hard every shift like they do. Obviously, we're going to have to be better . . . There's another gear in the Stanley Cup Final."
In the postseason, centers don't necessarily have to score in bunches, but they do need to be elite playmakers, producing scoring chances for their wings.
Kopitar, who leads all playoff scorers with 24 points, including 19 assists, is being matched up against different lines and is a focal point defensively. "I watch him during the regular season, he's an elite player,'' Stepan said. "He competes on both ends. It didn't surprise us."
Kings coach Darryl Sutter knows he has a gem. "If you look at Kopy's numbers in the playoffs,'' he said, "his playmaking ability is second to none in the league."
Brassard said his line got off to a good start but faded. "Benny [Pouliot] scored in the first period, but we need to create more scoring chances as a line," he said. "When you lose a game, you always look back and see the things you can improve. That's something we as a line talked about. We're gonna need to find a way to get more scoring chances. They're pretty tight, so we're going to have to work harder. We have to do what we've been doing all year. We're going to have to go on the inside, play on the move, support each other."
Hoping to avoid falling behind 2-0 in the best-of-seven series (with Game 3 Monday at the Garden), Richards agreed with Vigneault's call for improved puck management. In other words, more poise, fewer high-risk passes and smarter odd-man rushes.
"Center, whatever position, as a team we stopped managing the puck as the game went on for some reason," Richards said. "We all know that, recognize that. We've got to be better in those areas."
Stepan agreed that he and his linemates, right wing Rick Nash and left wing Chris Kreider, "have more to give, all three of us. We shouldn't need to be challenged. As a group, when all three of us are contributing, Chris is skating and Nasher and I are creating space for ourselves. It's not just Rick. Me and Kreids were talking today; we've got to step up and help him out, too."