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Blackhawks or Kings? Either way, Rangers face a tough test

Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks goes for

Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks goes for the puck in front of Tanner Pearson of the Los Angeles Kings in the second period in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Staples Center on May 30, 2014 in Los Angeles. Credit: Getty Images / Harry How

Sunset Boulevard or the Magnificent Mile?

Which route would be the roughest for the Rangers in their path to the Stanley Cup?

In some areas, the Los Angeles Kings might be a better matchup for the Rangers than the Chicago Blackhawks.

Then again, if the Kings get in, former Ranger Marian Gaborik would like nothing more than to wreak some havoc against his old teammates.

Rangers vs. Blackhawks? Toss out the regular-season results; the personnel has changed. The Rangers beat the Blackhawks twice, in January with since-departed Michael Del Zotto and Ryan Callahan, and in February with Cam Talbot in the net.

Rangers vs. Kings? They haven't played since Nov. 17, a 1-0 Rangers loss, and the Rangers haven't seen goalie Jonathan Quick -- who has been a force in the playoffs -- since they beat the Kings, 3-1, on Oct. 7.

Instead, consider:

With a second consecutive day off Saturday while the Blackhawks and Kings traveled from the West Coast to the Midwest for Sunday night's winner-take-all Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, the Rangers certainly won't be gassed, mentally or physically.

The Western winner will be, although if the Blackhawks prevail, they can recharge at home all day Monday before hosting Game 1 on Wednesday night at United Center. The Kings would travel back to Southern California to prepare for the Rangers' visit.

But the extended conference final is just one factor that could work in favor of the Rangers, who will have their hands full with either opponent.

Statistically, the Rangers are the best defensive team left in the playoffs, surrendering only 2.25 goals per game in the postseason. If you are a believer that defense wins championships, the Rangers have this going for them: a determined Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, a slightly deeper defense corps, effective penalty-killing units and, if it remains consistent, a commitment to using their upfront speed to backcheck.

But both the Kings and Blackhawks have plenty of offense.

Anze Kopitar, Gaborik and Jeff Carter are the playoff point leaders for the Kings, who have scored 23 goals in the six games against the Blackhawks, who have 19. But six of the goals have come on power plays and two were empty-netters. Gaborik has two goals in the last four games. Kopitar has none.

The Kings haven't been able to contain Chicago's Patrick Kane, who has seven points in the last two games, and Jonathan Toews is one of those players whom armchair general managers -- and real ones -- would love to build a team around.

Veterans Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are big-game gunners and Brandon Saad (14 points) -- passed on by the Rangers and 20-something other teams in the 2011 draft -- has been a monster. Duncan Keith is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. Overall, the Blackhawks have more balance.

Defenseman Drew Doughty has been a major presence for the Kings, but Los Angeles has been streaky in its scoring all season (three goals in six games, four in four, six in four, for example).

The Rangers have played well with late leads at critical times in the playoffs; the Kings, who are approaching their third Game 7, have squandered them in the last two games. The Blackhawks have shown more resiliency.

Offensively, however, the Rangers will be tested. Overall, both clubs will have ousted tough teams. If they advance, the wearier Kings will have beaten San Jose, Anaheim and defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago. If the Blackhawks advance, they will have had a slightly easier journey, having knocked off banged-up St. Louis, Minnesota and Los Angeles.

Except for the Penguins series, the Rangers faced backup goaltenders (Ray Emery, Dustin Tokarski) in part of two rounds and still have scored fewer goals per game. The Kings are at 3.40, the Blackhawks at 3.00 and the Rangers at 2.70.

When it comes to size, the Kings are bigger, which isn't necessarily a positive. The Rangers and Blackhawks have players averaging about 6-1, 199. The Kings are an inch taller and about 10 pounds heavier per player. But the NHL has been trending toward speed and skill. The tallest teams at the start of the season -- the Jets, Maple Leafs, Senators, Capitals, Coyotes, Panthers and Sabres -- missed the playoffs.

And then there are the intangibles.

The Rangers seemed to be destined to get to the Final ever since the inspirational return of Martin St. Louis after his mother's death before Game 5 of the Penguins series, which they trailed 3-1. They have been on a collective mission.

The Blackhawks seem to have found their stride. The Kings have staged comebacks and also have stumbled, and will have to put forth their last ounce of will to advance.

In all, it would seem a sunnier forecast for the Rangers if the Kings prevail. The Windy City could be chilly indeed.

New York Sports